Indiana online schools

Former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz: Virtual schools ‘prey’ on vulnerable students

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz talks with reporters following an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2016.

As far as former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz is concerned, full-time online schools are “a failed alternative” to traditional schools.

In response to a Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School published late last month, Ritz argued in an Indianapolis Business Journal column that virtual learning has its place in the classroom, but most of the time, online charter schools can’t meet the needs of their students.

Chalkbeat found that at Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online school which has already opened a second Indiana school, student-to-teacher ratios are sky-high and few students graduate. The school was also charged millions of dollars by its founder’s former company to manage the school, a set-up which has raised ethical questions.

She continued:

“Virtual learning has its place in all of our schools to deepen learning, enhance practice skills, and provide access to information. However, virtual learning should not be offered to students, using taxpayer money, as a complete alternative to school.

The key word is “school.” If you have not read the Oct. 31 special report from Chalkbeat titled, ‘As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions,’ then you should. Not-for-profit companies like the one mentioned in the article make a lot of money getting chartered as a school and spending your tax dollars while failing to provide quality education to some of our most vulnerable students.

In Indiana, in the name of ‘choice,’ legislative leaders take money from these companies. These companies want to be able to effectively lobby for more state money to prey on our most vulnerable students through exclusive opportunities to capture more of the virtual education space.”

Since leaving office, Ritz has started her own consulting company, Advancing Public Schools. The organization works with public school district boards to promote their schools’ work and analyze and fill gaps in literacy and reading programs.

You can read the entire column here and find Chalkbeat’s investigation here.

 

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

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

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

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

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”



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.