special report

As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

One of Indiana’s largest high schools ended this past school year with almost 5,000 students, but no desks and no classrooms. The school also had very few graduates — 61 out of more than 900 seniors graduated last year.

What Indiana Virtual School did have: Tens of millions in state dollars due to come its way over the next two years, and a founder whose for-profit company charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school.

Thomas Stoughton founded the school in 2011, taking advantage of a new law allowing Indiana charter schools to serve students exclusively over the internet, rather than in brick-and-mortar buildings.

In recent years, students have signed up in droves, responding to social media advertising campaigns. The school they end up attending differs widely from other online charter schools emerging across the country, with far fewer teachers per student — 1 for every 222 students last school year, according to state data — and fewer students taking and passing state exams.

As enrollment at Indiana Virtual School ballooned, so did the school’s state funding, which is distributed on a per-student basis. Some of that money has gone to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company also founded and led until June 2016 by Stoughton. From 2011 through mid-2015, AlphaCom held multiple contracts with Indiana Virtual School totaling about $6 million to provide management services and office space. A company run by Stoughton’s son also held a contract with the school.

AlphaCom’s involvement was necessary for Indiana Virtual School to launch and has now waned, according to the school’s lawyer, Thomas Burroughs. He said the school’s “innovative” approach offers a last chance to students who would have no other way to graduate. Burroughs also defended the school’s graduation rate and student-to-teacher ratio.

State education officials say they can’t intervene, and the tiny school district that oversees Indiana Virtual School has not pressed the school to improve until recently.

That leaves Indiana Virtual School operating with few checks in a state where lawmakers have pushed for an open education marketplace, with a wide menu of school options for families. In addition to schools run by traditional districts, the state also has charter schools, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to help families pay for private school, and a new hybrid known as “innovation schools,” where charter school operators join forces with school districts.

Online charter schools, also known as virtual charter schools, are expanding quickly. Last year, more than 12,000 students across Indiana were enrolled in the schools, and that number is growing — a trend U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports, but some researchers find concerning.

“For the vast majority of kids,” said Michael Barbour, a Touro University California professor who studies virtual charter schools, “the way in which we currently practice full-time online learning in the U.S. is a recipe for disaster.”


Indiana Virtual School did not respond to requests about exactly how it spends its money. However, financial documents that the school reports to the state suggest that it is using public dollars differently from other schools like it.

Indiana Virtual School’s most recent financial report, from the 2015-16 school year, shows that it received more than $9.7 million from the state that year. That figure is based on a state formula that awards online charter schools 90 percent of the funds per student sent to brick-and-mortar schools.

That year, Indiana’s two other major online charter schools spent about two-thirds of their state dollars on instruction, a category that includes programming, remediation, and salaries. Indiana Virtual School, by contrast, spent about 10 percent of its funding on instruction.

Yet the school directed 89 percent of its state funding toward “support services,” a catch-all category that can include essential supplies such as textbooks, as well as legal and administrative services or staff training. The two other online charter schools spent about a quarter of their budgets on support services.

Another big difference: the portion of Indiana Virtual School’s budget that went to teacher salaries. Indiana Virtual School spent 7 percent of its funding on teachers and other staff. That’s compared to 19 percent for Hoosier Academy Virtual and 28 percent for Indiana Connections Academy.

With a total of 21 teachers for 4,682 students according to state data, Indiana Virtual School had one teacher for every 222 students at the end of the last school year. Many of the teachers were only part-time, according to former teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat anonymously, saying they feared retribution from their former employer. Advertisements the school posted on the state education department’s jobs website earlier this year confirm the school sought part-time teachers.

Asked about the school’s student-to-teacher ratio, Burroughs, Indiana Virtual School’s lawyer, provided updated figures for October 2017. He also disclosed a new development: As of August, Indiana Virtual School became two separate online charter schools, though they share the same principal and office address.

Between Indiana Virtual School and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, Burroughs said student enrollment surged to 6,332 since last school year. The number of teachers grew to 40, making the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1.

Either ratio far exceeds the 30-to-1 average at virtual schools nationwide, according to the National Education Policy Center, where researchers have studied virtual schools for years. The average ratio for brick-and-mortar schools was 17-to-1.

The school’s attorney said the current ratio is appropriate and suggested that schools with lower ratios are prioritizing the interests of educators, not children.

“The schools’ focus should be and is on helping students learn and graduate, and not on employing the maximum number of teachers deemed appropriate by teachers unions,” Burroughs said.


If Indiana Virtual spent such a small proportion of its funding on teachers, then where was the money going?

At least some of the school’s budget went to companies connected to the school’s founder.

Before launching Indiana Virtual School in 2011, Thomas Stoughton was involved in dozens of business ventures. He had worked in nonprofits, property management, consulting, public relations, finance, and higher education — but not as a K-12 educator.

His goal in opening Indiana Virtual School, he told Chalkbeat, was “to help and identify those kids over the years that, for whatever reason, the large educational system isn’t working for them.”

But Stoughton has combined his prior business experiences and Indiana Virtual School in a way that raises ethical questions.

Until last year, Stoughton chaired the school’s board while he was president of a for-profit company that the board hired to help manage the school. The company, AlphaCom, charged the school more than $2.5 million in “management services” between 2011 and mid-2015. The school also agreed to spend another $3.5 million between 2014 and 2023 to rent space in AlphaCom’s northern Indianapolis office park home.

During this time period, Thomas Stoughton was president of both Business Consulting Inc., the school's organizer, and Alphacom.
This is an excerpt from Indiana Virtual School’s 2013 audit. During this time period, Thomas Stoughton was school board chairman and president of Alphacom.

The school also was charged more than $500,000 in 2015 by a company headed by Stoughton’s son, also named Tom Stoughton, for technology and website design services. Other clients that the company, A Simple Reminder Inc., listed on a previous version of its website included Kickity Dragons, a local karate studio for toddlers, and a now-closed restaurant called Avec Moi.

An older version of the company's website, including a list of clients.
An older version of A Simple Reminder’s website, including a list of clients.

Burroughs said the relationship between the school and AlphaCom was appropriate, and the school could not have launched without them. Before the school opened, it had none of its own money and relied on the company to procure office space and buy essential supplies, he said, adding that Indiana Virtual School rented from AlphaCom because it could not obtain its own lease.

“Without AlphaCom,” Burroughs said, “the schools would not exist.”

IRS rules prohibit nonprofit leaders from individually benefiting from the organizations they run. And Indiana charter law requires that contracts disclose potential conflicts like the ones that set Stoughton’s company up to profit from the school’s spending.

“Violation of any of these federal or state laws could almost certainly be grounds for charter revocation,” said Amy Osborne of the Indiana Charter School Board, one of the state’s charter school authorizers.

It’s not clear whether Stoughton or Indiana Virtual School breached any laws. But none of the recent contracts provided to Chalkbeat identifies any possible conflicts of interest. And the original contracts between the school and AlphaCom — ones that were signed while Stoughton headed both entities — have been lost, according to Burroughs.

“Unfortunately, when Indiana Virtual School was audited for the 2015 audit report, the auditor took possession of the original of that agreement and numerous other agreements and never returned them,” Burroughs told Chalkbeat.

Burroughs, who also until recently sat on Indiana Virtual School’s board, said the school no longer contracts with A Simple Reminder. He also said Stoughton eliminated conflicts when he divested from AlphaCom in June 2016. Burroughs added more detail in October 2017, saying that Stoughton had recused himself from board votes related to AlphaCom and more recently had resigned from the board entirely, “now that the schools have a solid operating foundation.” Stoughton was a board member in September 2017, according to board minutes.

The school’s board never took issue with Stoughton’s overlapping roles or the fact that the school contracted to pay his company and his son’s, according to Stoughton. “Nobody has ever questioned it,” he told Chalkbeat in May. After that brief interview, he stopped responding to questions.

The school’s board has included several people with close personal ties to Stoughton: Founding board members James Tilford (who died earlier this year) and Thomas Krudy went to the same high school as Stoughton in the 1960s. Jeff Sparks, another founding board member, said he’s known Stoughton and his brother, Steve Stoughton, a former Indiana state representative, for 30 years.


Many of Indiana Virtual School’s students are a lot like Lexie DeVine: They have had difficulty succeeding in a traditional school setting.

DeVine started looking into online schools a couple years ago after dealing with bullying at her school in Perry Township. When she became pregnant with her daughter, that sealed the deal.

“That’s when I really decided, yeah, I think online school would be best,” DeVine, now 18, said. “I can hold my daughter with one hand and type with another.”

DeVine is the kind of student that Percy Clark, a longtime educator and Indiana Virtual School’s superintendent, said the school was designed to serve. About 85 percent of the school’s students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance, and Clark said many have been expelled or dropped out from their previous school.

“When you see our kids and what they’ve gone through in terms of homelessness and pregnancy or drugs or abuse, and they’ve been able to get the Core 40 diploma,” Clark said, “that’s a chance for our state to celebrate.” The Core 40 diploma is Indiana’s primary high school diploma.

Burroughs, the school’s attorney, also said the school offers a safety net for students who have left other schools or been expelled.

“A diploma, or an enhancement of their skills may open doors and allow these ‘throw away’ students to become self-supporting, tax-paying citizens rather than welfare recipients or correctional facility residents,” he said.

But DeVine’s classmates largely aren’t graduating. The school had the lowest graduation rate in the state in 2016 at 5.7 percent. In 2017, Clark said, 61 of the more than 900 seniors earned diplomas.

DeVine said she hopes to graduate by the end of this year, though she’s still working on her junior year coursework. She started at Indiana Virtual School in February 2016 when she was 16.

"You’re essentially paying someone to teach someone who’s a ghost student."a former English teacher

Many schools with needy students struggle to get them to graduation, but it’s unclear whether Indiana Virtual School has adopted practices that other schools have found can make a difference.

School officials say they are pursuing strategies that they think can help students learn. Burroughs pointed to an effort to help students who are not strong readers with a “text-to-speech” tool. He also mentioned a plan to begin “gamifying coursework,” which he said would “help students better learn and retain knowledge.”

But unlike some other virtual schools in Indiana and beyond, Indiana Virtual School says it does not provide students with free computers, an essential tool for accessing their schoolwork.

It also offers few organized ways for students to interact with each other. Some efforts appear to be underway: The school has recently posted on its website about a basketball program.

Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave. near the northern edge of Marion County.

And its barebones teaching staff means students and teachers rarely connect in real time, leaving students on their own.

A science teacher who taught during the school’s early years said the lack of student interaction felt abnormal. She spoke about her experiences on the condition of anonymity.

“I found it very hard because I’m a very hands-on teacher, and I like to have that communication and contact with the students,” the former teacher said. “Not to have that, especially for the at-risk kids, was hard because those are the students who really need it.”

Unlike in other online schools, Indiana Virtual isn’t designed for teachers to give live lessons. They do not actively teach material to students whom they can see on video, hear over headphones, or chat via online messaging. Students work through class material on their own time, at their own pace, and contact their teachers only when they need or want to. Sometimes, teachers will follow up with check-ins for certain lessons.

Those conditions are challenging even for college students, said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who researches virtual schools.

“We recognize at a university that even these mature students who can self-regulate and who are highly motivated” need to interact with their teachers, Miron said.

One signal that the school might not be paying close attention to student participation is its 100-percent attendance rate. The information it reports to the state is based only on whether students have signed up for courses, not whether they log in to do work, according to Clark and the teachers Chalkbeat spoke with.

If students do not make progress, the immediate downside for the school is minimal. And because Indiana law allows students to remain enrolled in school until they graduate no matter their age, Indiana Virtual School can continue to collect state funds while keeping costs low.


There is one group that is explicitly charged with stepping in if Indiana Virtual School does not fulfill its mission. That’s the school’s authorizer — the tiny, rural Daleville school district located near Muncie.

The Indiana State Board of Education is required to get involved once a school has four F grades in a row. So far, Indiana Virtual has received two failing grades.

Some authorizers have chosen to shut down poor-performing schools or made swift, substantial changes to improve them before the state intervened. But nothing in state law or regulation compels them to — an omission that drew recent criticism from federal authorities.

"We need a different A-F system ... Not only for virtual schools, but for other schools, especially those schools that have unique characteristics of students."Percy Clark, Indiana Virtual School superintendent

Daleville has chosen to take a more passive role in spite of the school’s small teaching staff and low graduation rate and test scores. Last year, 20 percent of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students and 8 percent of 10th-graders at Indiana Virtual passed the English and math state tests. Statewide, about half of elementary and middle school students and one-third of high school students passed both exams.

Daleville’s top official said he feels that his hands are tied.

“I can’t say, ‘Do this!’ And you have to do it,” Daleville Superintendent Paul Garrison said. “You’ve got a death sentence you can use and nothing else.”

The charter authorizer system also contains a perverse incentive to keep low-performing schools open: Authorizers are paid by the schools they oversee.

Daleville collects 3 percent of Indiana Virtual’s funding from the state, although there’s disagreement among Indiana legal experts about whether districts that authorize charter schools should. In 2015-16, the district received just shy of $300,000. After the school’s enrollment spiked, Daleville was on track to receive more than $750,000 during the last school year.

In principle, those funds are supposed to defray the district’s costs of supervising the charter school. But it’s unclear exactly how that money fits into the district’s budget, which was about $9 million in 2016. Garrison said past years’ fees have gone toward salaries for staff working with the virtual school, computers, and online course fees for Daleville district students.

Some of the fees have gone toward working with the virtual school to design a new evaluation system for it. Daleville hopes the new system will be fairer than the state’s current approach to grading schools, which looks primarily at test scores and graduation rates.

Daleville is home to a small public school district. Pictured is the district administration building, which is right next door to the junior high and high schools.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Daleville is home to a small public school district. Pictured is the district administration building, which is right next door to the junior high and high schools.

The district paid a Fort Wayne company, The Summit, $52,000 to design a model called “Evaluation of Online Learning and Virtual Efficacy,” or EVOLVE, which got an early test this summer.

“We need a different A-F system,” Clark said. “Not only for virtual schools, but for other schools, especially those schools that have unique characteristics of students.”

It’s too early to know if state officials will consider the alternative evaluation system. But there’s no question that even as poor results mount for online schools, Indiana officials are easing rules meant to hold virtual charters accountable for helping students learn.

The Indiana General Assembly this year passed bills that give even more leeway in how virtual schools are assigned A-F grades, calculate graduation rates, and expel students.

In 2017, every online charter school in Indiana received an F grade except for a hybrid school called Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis, where students attend some days in person and some days online. That school received a D this year, up from an F last year.

"If the policymakers don’t care and the citizens don’t apply pressure, then nothing can be fixed."Diane Swanson, Kansas State University

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has long said that she is distressed by Indiana online schools’ performance.

But in an email to Chalkbeat, McCormick said the Department of Education, which she oversees, is not responsible for policing Indiana Virtual School — that falls to Daleville and, ultimately, the State Board of Education. McCormick, who also chairs the state board, has said authorizers need to get involved in virtual schools sooner, but she emphasized that’s not the education department’s call.

“The state does not equal the department when it comes to responsibility for policy,” she said. “Our role can be one of influence but is largely one of implementation of existing policies.”

While some state board members have joined McCormick in criticizing online charter schools, as a group they have consistently voted to let low-performing virtual schools stay open. The board chose not to close Hoosier Academy Virtual even though the school got seven years of F grades. Hoosier Academy’s own board voted last month to close at the end of this year because it feared repercussions from its authorizer, Ball State University.

Indiana Virtual School performed worse than Hoosier Academy, based on state data.


There’s one more group responsible for online charter schools in Indiana — lawmakers.

Virtual schools got a slow start in Indiana but took off once voters put a majority of Republican legislators in the General Assembly. Once there, they passed laws to allow full-time online schools and slowly increased their funding.

A number of powerful Indiana Republicans who supported those laws have received campaign contributions from K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country. That includes education committee chairs Rep. Bob Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, former Senate Appropriations chair Luke Kenley, House Ways & Means chair Tim Brown, and House Speaker Brian Bosma.

Kenley, who won’t be running for reelection in 2018, voted in 2011 to allow full-time virtual schools. But he has stopped proposals to increase virtual schools’ funding from making it into the state budget, and he wants his colleagues to think carefully about what they’re spending on online charter schools.

“Indiana is trying to be a leader and develop a platform with a lot of choices for a lot of different kinds of people,” Kenley said. “That’s a worthwhile pursuit, but you can’t shut your eyes and just throw money at things without the sense that success is being created there.”

Student enrollments at Indiana Virtual School compared to those at Indiana Connections Academy and Hoosier Academy Virtual, two other major online charter schools in the state, from 2011-12 through the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.
Student enrollments at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy compared to those at Indiana Connections Academy and Hoosier Academy Virtual, two other major online charter schools in the state, from 2011-12 through the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

With the people who have the power to intervene at online charter schools allowing them to continue to grow unchecked, Indiana faces a perfect storm for problems to arise according to Diane Swanson, a Kansas State University researcher who studies government transparency and ethics.

“We can’t really rely on the people who are causing the conflicts of interest to fix it,” Swanson said. “If the policymakers don’t care and the citizens don’t apply pressure, then nothing can be fixed.”


For now, Stoughton appears to be oriented toward growth, not possible consequences. He and his colleagues at Indiana Virtual School are working to launch schools in Texas and Michigan, as well their second Indiana school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

The Texas Education Agency has not approved the charter for Texas Virtual School, but the Michigan Department of Education recently approved the charter for Michigan Online School, which would be authorized by the Gobles public school district. It is set to open in January.

Daleville officials authorized Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy to open in August. By Sept. 1, state records showed the school enrolled 2,958 students, 2,918 of whom came directly via Indiana Virtual School. The remainder came from 35 other schools across Indiana.

An excerpt from Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s charter proposal to Daleville Public Schools.

The school is billed as an alternative school, meant for students who struggle in a regular high school or have discipline issues. Alternative schools typically offer intensive services and support for students who would otherwise be at risk of dropping out.

Will Indiana Virtual Pathways offer those services even though Indiana Virtual has not? Clark, the school’s superintendent, did not respond to questions about the new school’s offerings for students. The school’s proposal for a new charter promises individualized “service plans” for each student, internship opportunities, and more support for needier students. But the proposal also names a “top end” of what the school’s student-to-teacher ratio can be: 250-to-1.

Even before Stoughton opened the second school, people with experience in education expressed concerns about what his ventures mean for students.

“It’s almost become a new business model for these groups, and they’re shortchanging kids in the end,” said Terri Austin, a Democratic state representative and former educator.

“How fair is it to kids when you know that some of these shady practices are going on and we turn a blind eye?” she added.

“Kids only get one chance.”

This story has been updated to reflect the status of Michigan Online School.

Indiana online schools

Here’s how some of Indiana’s online schools are trying to fix low testing turnout

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Some Indiana parents, students, and educators praise online schools for allowing students to learn anywhere they want, but it’s exactly that flexibility that leads to one of the schools’ biggest struggles: ensuring students sit for state exams.

Virtual schools have historically struggled to get all of their students tested, compared to their brick-and-mortar peers. While 99 percent of traditional school students are tested throughout the state, in online schools, rates generally fall below the federally mandated 95 percent. In 2017, the most recent data available, most of Indiana’s online schools had test participation rates in the mid-80s and low 90s, with Indiana Virtual School testing just 35 percent of its students.

The schools say they struggle to get a higher number of students tested because they are scattered across the state and often have to drive long distances to testing sites. Also the parents of students at virtual charter schools are often more likely to want their children to “opt out” of tests for philosophical reasons, school leaders say.

Low turnout for state tests can have ramifications for schools: If more than 5 percent of a school’s students skip the ISTEP exams, schools lose points on their state A-F grades.

What’s more, if enough students don’t take tests, the state can’t get a full picture of how they are performing. This could pose a significant problem for virtual schools that already have trouble educating their students, some of whom struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level. Every virtual school in Indiana received an F grade from the state in 2017.

And low test turnout might also be a piece of a larger problem with a school’s ability to create community and engage far-flung students.

In recent years, several virtual schools have made it a priority to get students to sit for state exams. One school says it spent $500,000 last year on testing, including hotel rooms for proctors near testing sites. Another has a “war room” where school leaders tackle testing issues, an approach that has led to a 15 percentage point jump in testing rates, the school says. We’ll learn if some of these efforts are paying off in the coming months, when the state is expected to release updated test participation rates along with A-F grades.

“You can probably imagine it’s a massive undertaking,” said Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls more than 4,600 students. “We try to remind people that they agreed to do this, that the test is just a look at their performance and it allows Indiana to evaluate our school … we try to be positive.”

Ensuring online students take standardized tests is a challenge nationally, as well. According to a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center, low testing participation rates for virtual schools “allows their performance to go largely unchecked” because in many states a low enough rate lets schools duck state ratings. States should adjust their policies to close this loophole, the researchers said.

Test participation is one of the areas that state officials are examining as they consider further regulating virtual charter schools after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming the schools in response to a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students.

At a meeting last month of the Indiana State Board of Education committee charged with re-examining the virtual school rules, state officials presented test participation data from 2017.

Virtual charter schools say ensuring their students take state exams during two-week-long windows twice a year is expensive and time-consuming. At Connections, Brown said, the school spends about $500,000 on testing each year. Coordinating test days are expensive in part because staff must travel and stay overnight in hotels in order to procter.

Connections has 18 testing locations across the state, and no family should have to travel more than 50 miles to their assigned location. Students might test at a library, convention center, hotel, or community college — but the schools have to rent the space, furnish it with computers, and contract with vendors to ensure servers meet state security guidelines. They also spend time training teachers and staff on test security.

Because families often are traveling some distance, Brown said school leaders try to schedule siblings on the same day and condense testing as much as state rules allow so parents aren’t driving back and forth multiple times a week. That means students might have more testing in a single day, but test for fewer days overall than in a brick-and-mortar school. In 2017, 91 percent of Connections students were tested.

Like at traditional schools, students with special needs receive their required testing accommodations, such as longer test times or a specific environment. At its largest site, 30 students might be in one room at a time, but usually the group is much smaller, Brown said, especially in rural communities.

For students attending the Insight School, a full-time virtual charter school under the Hoosier Academies umbrella that caters to students far behind grade level, the testing process is similar. Elizabeth Lamey, head of school at Insight, said she oversees 12 sites across the state, and families shouldn’t have to travel more than 30 minutes to their assigned spot. If families cannot get there on their own, the school helps provide transportation. In 2017, 84 percent of Insight students were tested.

“It’s quite a process — we have a war room here at our administration building where it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lamey said.

School leaders find it challenging to sell the importance of state tests to virtual families, many of whom signed on explicitly to avoid what they see as restrictive school rules or intimidating social situations. Families at virtual schools are also more inclined, in Brown’s experience, to advocate for “opting out” of state tests intentionally on principle, not just for logistical reasons.

Last year, between 80 and 100 students opted out at Connections. Lamey said Insight has families who choose to opt out as well. In Indiana, there is no state-approved way for opting out of tests — state officials do not give schools any leeway in accountability for families who deliberately refuse to test.

“We do have a good chunk of families that want to own their child’s education, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re in our school, and so they’re more likely to (opt out),” Brown said. “Many of those children that are opting out are really high-performing students who just don’t believe in state testing.”

Brown and her staff, as well as those at Insight, communicate frequently with families leading up to tests to ensure they know where to go and when, and to remind them that testing was something they agreed to when they enrolled.

Not all students face testing challenges. Jeremiah Hitch, a 14-year-old freshman at Indiana Connections Academy, said he and his family haven’t had any big problems with getting to and from testing sites. Hitch lives in Evansville, and the testing site was at a convention center just a few miles from his home. He actually enjoys testing days, since he gets to see his teachers face-to-face.

Usually, Hitch said, he’s in a small room with few other students testing, in part because of his special education plan that requires that accomodation for his ADHD. Last year, he spent two days testing in each testing period. Compared to his previous traditional public school, this set-up is not nearly as distracting.

“Even during ISTEP (in the traditional school) you would still have something happening,” Hitch said. “It was a lot more quiet than usual, but it could still be very distracting. With ISTEP now, it’s a lot better.”

Both Connections and Insight expect their participation rates to be about the same or higher than last year, citing rates of about 90 percent and 98.5 percent respectively. Brown and Lamey said communication has been key — between teachers and parents, teachers and administrators, and teachers and students.

“That approach is something that has changed from the previous year,” Lamey said. “We’re undergoing a huge cultural shift at our school … we’re really trying to create an atmosphere, a culture of measurement. No one person holds the responsibility, it’s all of us.”

Indiana Virtual School did not return multiple requests for comment, but at a public meeting last month, school officials said they expected a 92 percent participation rate, up from 35 percent in 2017. Clark said they incentivized students to show up.

“We bought a lot of pizza,” he told the state board’s virtual school committee members.

A jump of that magnitude, in one year, would be a major achievement for the school, which has a history of testing issues. Until 2017, just a small fraction of students took tests each year. And last year, when the school’s rate was 35 percent, superintendent Percy Clark told Chalkbeat that many students still took tests on paper because the school couldn’t control outside computer security.

Even when Clark arrived at Indiana Virtual, he said they “were in hot water” in regards to taking ISTEP, though the school had far fewer students then compared to more than 3,300 today. Details about testing during Indiana Virtual’s early years came to light in a 2014 lawsuit brought against the school by then-superintendent Dave Stashevsky, who was suing for non-payment. At the time Stashevsky was also an educator in Daleville Public Schools, the small rural district that oversees Indiana Virtual School. Depositions in the case revealed that the school had tested very few students, if any — a result of disorganization at the school level and students being scattered across the state.

“Many of them didn’t make it that far to take the test,” a former teacher who taught at the school early on told Chalkbeat last year, requesting her name be withheld out of concerns about backlash from the school. “They left, or they didn’t complete the curriculum, or they kind of fell off the face of the Earth … (I) had no clue about when they took it, if they took it.”

Virtual schools’ struggles to engage families in state testing might also speak to the schools’ larger problem keeping students active and engaged in an online learning environment.

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in conversations Indiana policymakers have about improving online charter schools. If schools are more engaged with students and parents, and students are more engaged with their coursework, there’s more success, the theory goes.

Testing is one part of that relationship. Although, like brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools can’t force students to take tests, the absence of a physical schooling environment can make it more even more difficult to make testing a priority.

But neither online schools nor policymakers have found a surefire way to ensure that those strong relationships are built. Stronger introductions to online learning when parents enroll their children could be a factor, as could policies some online school advocates praise that let schools expel students who fail to participate after a certain length of time.

Lamey said that a new state policy that lets online schools remove students who aren’t a good fit for that type of learning has been beneficial for the school and for families.

“We don’t want a child to stay in this situation if they’re not finding success,” Lamey said. “We feel like we have a strong culture of support here for our students, but if it’s not working we want them to have success in school.”

Here’s the breakdown of ISTEP participation rates for each virtual charter school in the state that tested students last year, per state data.

2017 ISTEP Math Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,173 1,973 91%
Insight School of Indiana 317 267 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 314 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,594 1,489 93%


2017 ISTEP English Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,170 1,947 90%
Insight School of Indiana 320 268 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 308 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,597 1,470 92%

*Hoosier Academy Virtual closed this past June.

Indiana online schools

A new idea for fixing Indiana’s virtual charter schools: Let them choose their students

PHOTO: patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some charter school advocates have a provocative idea for how states can address the widespread failures in virtual charter schools: Let them pick and choose their students.

The idea would require the state to create a new kind of school. In that model, virtual schools could be allowed to enroll students based on the likelihood they’d do well in a virtual setting or on the support they have at home — similar to magnet schools that choose students based on test scores or interest in a certain subject. This would mean they could no longer be considered charter schools, which are public schools required by law to enroll any student who wants to attend.

The national charter school organizations say that not all students are suited to online learning and that one potential solution is letting virtual schools screen out those who aren’t. They acknowledge that this proposal should be a last resort for fixing virtual schools’ troubles. Given Indiana’s history with nontraditional school models, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

“One recommendation is actually potentially considering virtual charter schools as something else besides charter schools,” said Veronica Brooks, policy director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Indiana has been quite the leader in the country in terms of thinking about different types of schools.”

Brooks pointed to Indiana’s adult high schools, which grant diplomas but are funded and measured differently from traditional high schools; and innovation schools, which can be charter schools or traditional public schools that are under a district umbrella but get extra autonomy in curriculum, budgeting, and other operations.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, was stunned that it could even be seriously suggested that public schools could get to choose their own students.

“They can pick the students they want to get the results they want to get funded?” DeLaney said. “Other than for a very tiny subset of kids with severe, clinically recognized physical or mental disabilities — other than that, and I do mean tiny subset — I have no interest in supporting virtual charter schools in any way, shape, or form.”

The recommendation came among ideas presented Monday to the Indiana State Board of Education’s virtual charter school committee, which is considering how to better regulate the schools. Representatives from four national charter advocacy groups suggested new regulations and possible changes Indiana could make to existing laws. They mostly agreed on solutions, which included cracking down on lax oversight, controlling growth, reducing financial incentives for opening and overseeing virtual schools, and rethinking metrics of success.

Gordon Hendry, the chairman of the state board committee, said he found the concept of a new school type interesting but said the committee needed more time to discuss it. The committee could make recommendations for policymakers before the legislative session begins in January.

“The fact that there may be special rules, regulations that apply specifically to virtual charter schools is something that we have been thinking about and will continue thinking about as this process moves forward,” Hendry said.

The committee was created after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming virtual charter schools, in response to a Chalkbeat investigation that last year revealed one of the state’s largest virtual schools had years of low performance, was hiring few teachers, and was engaging in questionable spending and business practices.

In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students. But despite rapid growth, the schools have not shown that they can educate most students and get them to graduate. Every virtual school received an F grade from the state in 2017.

For their part, the schools say they enroll many students who struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level.

Changing the nature of what virtual charter schools are or allowing them to limit student enrollment would require major changes to policy and state law. Currently, public schools are not allowed to turn students away. Creating a kind of public school that could, Brooks said, might contradict the original goal of the school choice philosophy.

“The charter school movement in very large part was built on a foundation of open enrollment, that charter schools should be open and accessible to all,” Brooks said.

Other major online school providers, such as K12 Inc., which operates Hoosier Academies schools in Indiana, have spoken out against the idea in the past, saying it can “create perverse incentives for schools to turn away at-risk children.”

Because public school funding is tied to student enrollment, selective enrollment policies could present an interesting dilemma for virtual schools that, like other schools, need students to stay afloat financially.

Enabling virtual schools to turn away some students wouldn’t necessarily require them to fix the problems inherent in virtual learning, where students are often unsupervised and the number of teachers and student support might not keep pace with enrollment.

But virtual charter operators might find the proposal an attractive option in the face of low academic progress. And, some charter school advocates say, it could keep students from languishing in schools that aren’t serving them.

Currently, students who aren’t a good fit for the independent, self-motivated learning environment of online schools, or who lack adult support at home, are more likely to drop out, do poorly on state tests, and not graduate on time, if they do at all.

A 2016 report Brooks’ group did with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said virtual schools aren’t necessarily creating programs that are accessible for all students, and often, their students aren’t equipped to be successful there.

“Indeed many of the biggest operators of full-time virtual charter schools appear to have developed programs that are only designed to be effective with self-motivated students and/or students with highly involved parents,” the report said.

Tellingly, the report stated that if after other policy changes are attempted and the only way to avoid large-scale failure is to limit enrollment, “we believe that many states will decide that full- time virtual school offerings are simply incompatible with the goals of their charter school laws.”

Chad Aldis, with the Fordham Institute, highlighted a different version of selective enrollment that Indiana already uses — what he called “disenrollment.”

In this process, a virtual charter school would still be considered a public charter school, but it would have the freedom to expel a student who was not engaged and meeting the school’s attendance and participation requirements. In a July blog post on Fordham’s website, Aldis justifies the idea:

“Just imagine the impact on a student of doing virtually no work for several years, and the limited ability of the teacher to intervene because of the online nature of the relationship,” Aldis wrote. “It could very well create an unrecoverable gap, especially for disadvantaged students.”

Advocates on Monday praised Indiana’s recently adopted virtual charter school “engagement” policy, which requires schools to contact parents and investigate why a student isn’t participating. It could lead to a student being expelled.

If Indiana were to allow virtual schools to choose its students, the state would have to figure out how to address the large number of students who might be displaced.

Virtual charter school leaders in the state have said their failures stem from their schools being a last resort for many students who are expelled or have other problems learning elsewhere.

But if Indiana were to allow virtual schools to pass those students by, it’s not clear how they would get the education they need and who would take responsibility for them.