behind the story

Few teachers, low scores, and ethical questions. Behind our Indiana Virtual School investigation.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

In the week since we published our investigation into Indiana Virtual School, thousands of people have learned about the school’s poor performance, unorthodox spending, and ineffective oversight. (If you need a refresher, this Twitter thread might help.)

Now, we’re taking you behind the story with an interview between Shaina Cavazos, the reporter who dug into Indiana Virtual School over the course of more than seven months, and Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat’s national reporter, who is keeping a close eye on where virtual schools stand across the country.

Read on to hear about the challenges Shaina encountered, the reaction so far, what comes next, and how you can help.

Matt: How did you decide to look into this school? What challenges did you run into?

Shaina: I actually started reporting on virtual schools more than a year ago when another school, Hoosier Academy Virtual, was up for state sanctions. I wanted to figure out what virtual schools were like given that they enroll about 1 percent of students in Indiana.

Once I looked past the schools backed by the big-name national organizations, I realized Indiana Virtual was just as large and growing incredibly fast — but few people I talked to were familiar with it. So I started digging.

Reporting about the school became difficult once the school stopped responding to a lot of the questions I was asking. It meant that even for finding out things as basic as their current enrollment, I had to find other sources of data and information. I did a lot of formal requests for records, and I worked quite a bit with the state department of education’s data team to figure out what data was out there and how I could access it. I couldn’t always get documents, but usually I found out that the law said I had a right to them. It pushed me to learn about what documents were available to me because I knew few things stood in the way of what I should be able to get legally.

What has the reaction been?

I don’t think the school is happy with the story, but they haven’t agreed to a conversation about it.

In general, schools want to talk about their students who are successful, which I get. But a lot of students at this school are not successful, according to the state’s expectations. We can’t ignore that. We need to talk about those students and make sure they’re receiving an education and not just being enrolled somewhere.

I’m still talking to people who could take action to get their reaction. Intervention from the state board is still a few years away, if it happens at all, and the education department has not indicated they’re going to be doing anything in particular to this situation even though our state superintendent has spoken out about a need for more monitoring of online schools.

That leaves lawmakers. I’ve talked to some Democrats who are outraged about what’s going on, but they aren’t the party in power here — Republicans have a majority in both houses.

I’m still reaching out to lawmakers on both sides to talk about what might happen next. But ultimately, they created the system, so they’re the ones who can most easily change it.

Why was this story important for Chalkbeat to do?

At Chalkbeat, we’re focused on writing about students who have historically lacked access to a quality education. We’re always looking at our stories through a lens of equity — who isn’t being served? Many of students at this virtual school come from families living in poverty. While it’s not as racially or ethnically diverse as schools in a lot of the districts we write about, many students have disabilities or are learning English for the first time. And in a lot of cases, they aren’t getting the support they need to be successful.

Why should a reader outside of Indiana read your article?

You might not be aware of it, but something like this could be happening in your state too. Thirty-four states have virtual schools.

A lot of them have gone through something similar — Ohio is one example, and so is Colorado. It’s something we’re only going to see become more of an issue. Specifically talking about Indiana Virtual School, well, they are expanding, with schools in the works in Michigan and Texas.

Also, Betsy DeVos, our U.S. secretary of education, has promoted online schools. When the nation’s top education official is signing off on something, I’d say that makes scrutiny pretty important.

What comes next?

A top priority is to hold officials in Indiana accountable for reading and responding to the story. I’m working on that now, and when I learn more I’ll report back.

I’m also trying to learn even more about what it’s like for students in online schools — Indiana Virtual or others. I put a survey in the article so people could tell me their stories, and now I’m just trying to get the word out.

Find our investigation here.

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

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

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”

Indiana online schools

Charter advocacy group ranks Indiana’s law No. 1, but calls for greater virtual school accountability

For the third year in a row, Indiana was recognized by a leading charter school advocacy group for having the nation’s strongest charter school law, but the state was cited for failing to take action to properly regulate online charter schools.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has ranked Indiana No. 1 since 2016 based on how well state law corresponds with the Alliance’s model law. Specifically, Indiana is praised for not capping charter schools’ growth and for directing more money to charter schools to make up funding gaps compared to traditional schools. The state was lauded for its “remarkable growth and development” in charter schools since they started in 2001.

The high rating by the group, whose purpose is to promote and support charter school growth, is the latest indication of Indiana’s commitment to allowing outside groups develop and run public schools independent of school districts. Such pro-charter policies have been supported for years by Republican legislators and governors.

But even in its praise for the state’s pro-charter policies, the group found fault with Indiana’s oversight of virtual schools. The group called on the state to raise the bar for online charter schools, which have had a track record of abysmal performance not just in Indiana, but across the nation.

Indiana has yet to include most of the Alliance’s recommendations regarding full-time virtual schools in state law. The Alliance’s report says Indiana law includes a “small number” of the Alliance’s virtual school provisions, but it still has work to do in “strengthening accountability for full-time virtual charter schools.”

Indiana is not alone — no states include all of the online charter school provisions recommended by the Alliance, and many were called out for failing to include any at all. Although the Alliance advocates for increasing charter schools across the country, it also emphasizes school quality.

In a recent report, the Alliance outlined policies to help regulate virtual schools. They include setting maximum enrollment levels for virtual schools and not allowing them to exceed that enrollment in subsequent years unless they could prove students were learning. States are also encouraged to create a performance-based funding system, where schools get money based on what students achieve, not on whether they are enrolled. Both ideas have received initial support from Indiana lawmakers and policymakers.

The 2018 alliance ranking follows a Chalkbeat investigation identifying low performance at Indiana Virtual School and questionable business and spending practices. Despite Indiana Virtual’s F grades and subpar graduation rate, the state continues to allocate millions of dollars to it. In September, Indiana Virtual opened a second school. Almost every online charter school in Indiana received an F grade in 2017, and like Indiana Virtual, several others have also recently opened additional schools.

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

Earlier this month, two state senators introduced bills to tighten charter school oversight laws and prevent poor performing schools from multiplying, but no hearings have been scheduled yet. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has committed to working with the state board to look into virtual schools in Indiana, but details of his policy plans are not yet clear.

Learn more about Indiana Virtual School and online charters in the state here.