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.”



Indiana online schools

Indiana state board OKs committee to consider virtual charter school rules

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry proposed the resolution to create the committee.

The Indiana State Board of Education is moving forward with forming a committee that is expected to look closely into how virtual charter schools are regulated.

The step comes nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools. Board member Gordon Hendry will lead the committee, which represents the state’s first move to give the schools more oversight since 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.

“I’ve been disappointed with performance (of virtual charters schools),” Hendry said. “Our taxpayers are spending tens of millions of dollars each year to educate the students in virtual charters. I think we owe it to ourselves to ensure we’re doing everything possible to make that happen.”

The resolution proposed by board member Gordon Hendry was approved by an 8-0 vote on Wednesday.

So far, lawmakers have been hesitant to to take decisive action regarding virtual charter schools. This year, the legislature killed three bills that would have regulated charter schools, though they didn’t specifically address virtual charter schools. Seven virtual charter schools are operating in Indiana this year, serving about 12,000 students across the state.

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

Hendry said board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon, both public school administrators, already offered to be on the committee. It’s not clear how often they would meet.

Three board members, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, were not present to vote.

Hendry and board member B.J. Watts said they wanted board member Byron Ernest, the former head of three virtual charter schools, in the state to weigh-in on the committee’s future conversations because of his experience leading Hoosier Academies, a post he left last fall.

But the schools’ history with the state board has been fraught at times. In 2015, Hoosier Academy Virtual, then one of the largest full-time online charter schools in the state, reached its limit for consecutive F grades. After several hearings over more than two years, the state board finally decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

Just a couple months later, the school’s own board voted to close at the end of this year.

Hendry said both local and national problems with online charter schools prompted him to propose the resolution.

“It’s my intent to spend the next four to six months really delving into the issues,” Hendry said. “And making some recommendations for both this board as well as the General Assembly to consider.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools.

This story has been corrected to reflect that board member Byron Ernest was present for the vote.

Indiana online schools

Indiana education officials are taking another look at regulating virtual charter schools

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

Nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools, state education officials might soon take steps to address them — although they could fall short of the sweeping changes virtual school critics are pushing for.

The Indiana State Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday on forming a committee that could become Indiana’s first effort in recent years to strengthen virtual charter school oversight. State board member Gordon Hendry would lead the committee. Hendry said it’s the state board’s responsibility to ensure online charter schools are performing and are managed properly, especially when Hoosier tax dollars support them.

He also added that if lawmakers won’t step in and take more immediate, decisive action — which they’ve been hesitant to do — the state board needs to add regulation. The Republican-dominated legislature killed three bills this year that would have regulated charter schools and declined to address virtual charter schools, which are public schools that allow students to attend school online from home.

“I have had my reservations about the poor performance of many of these schools,” said Hendry, a Democrat who has been on the board since 2013. “So I hope that we can draw some attention to the issue, bring in some of our thought leaders both in Indiana and nationally and try to solve some of the problems in a constructive way.”

Hendry said he is unsure if the measure will gain board support, but he’s hopeful. Holcomb’s education policy director, PJ McGrew, has been researching best practices in virtual schools across the country to help Indiana revise its own rules. Adopting new regulations could take at least a year after the committee makes its recommendations to the board.

Critics have called for more sweeping actions to address online charter schools, which — across the nation — suffer from low graduation rates, dismal student test scores, and financial and legal scandals.

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 hired few teachers, posted poor academic performance and had questionable spending and business practices.

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

Since then, the state has also seen new virtual education programs crop up within public school districts. Those online programs are hard to evaluate because districts don’t release separate data for them.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider policies specific to virtual schools, such as making enrollment more selective and funding them based on whether students complete classes.

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 charter school-friendly laws that the association says still hold schools accountable for performance. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1 in the nation.

But online charter schools have effectively lobbied Indiana and other states to fend off major regulations.

It’s not yet clear how often the state board’s committee would meet or who would be on it. A majority of the state board would have to vote in favor to form the committee.

The state board has gone back and forth on how to handle virtual charter schools, most notably in its yearslong discussions on Hoosier Academy Virtual, which had reached its limit for consecutive F grades from the state. Ultimately, the board decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

The academy was headed by state board member Byron Ernest until he announced his resignation last fall, shortly after the school’s board voted to have the school close this June. Ernest recused himself from discussions and votes pertaining to Hoosier Academies.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has joined Hendry in pushing for tighter accountability for virtual schools.

“Virtual charters are public schools, and the state spends millions of dollars to ensure that the students are receiving the best education they can,” Hendry said. “This is an appropriate topic for us to roll up our sleeves and do some real hard work and make some recommendations.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools here.