policy talk

Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Daleville Public Schools, a small district located near Muncie, now oversees two statewide online charter schools.

The best way to fix a troubled charter school isn’t to go after the school, lawmakers and policymakers say — start with the authorizer.

A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that the school district charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has taken a hands-off approach that seems to meet the low expectations for authorizers in Indiana’s charter law, but the approach isn’t paying off when it comes to meeting the needs of the school’s students.

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

In the Hoosier state, authorizers — which can include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. Even then, there’s no guarantee that a school would close or that an authorizer would be stripped of its privileges to oversee schools. Many states have grappled with how to approve the best authorizers who will operate good schools, and even though Indiana’s policy has been held up as a national model, it has gaps.

“You have authorizers that aren’t behaving appropriately, whether it be malicious or not,” said James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, one of the state’s charter authorizers. “Currently, consequences only come in when a school performs badly because our laws don’t contemplate legal violations.”

Control has been at the crux the debate — how much should an authorizer get involved in the daily affairs of charter schools, and how much should the state intervene if an authorizer veers off course? In an atmosphere where free market politics encourage experimentation, authorizers are given broad reign.

But in Indiana, authorizers are often paid by the schools they oversee, and there’s not much incentive to close them. David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, said authorizers not only shouldn’t get authorizing fees from schools, but they also need to be heavily screened upfront to make sure they can do the work — especially if they are going to authorize virtual schools, which tend to have poor track records for student learning.

“The authorizer needs to assess whether it has the capacity to effectively oversee a school,” Harris said. “And if they can’t make the case that they do that well, then they shouldn’t authorize the school in the first place.”

SHARE YOUR STORY

Have you attended or taught in an online charter school? Tell us about your experience by filling out this brief form.

Oversight of Indiana Virtual School by the small Daleville Community School District has been fairly hands-off by the district’s own admission, and the district was on-track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year. Over its six-year lifespan, the F-rated school has enrolled thousands of students but failed to graduate most of them or hire more than several dozen teachers. But it continues to bring in millions of state dollars. Daleville this summer began piloting a new evaluation tool that it thinks can help improve Indiana Virtual.

Since 2011, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, has charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent, an agreement Daleville said it was unaware of. Stoughton has also led the school’s growth. In September, he opened a second statewide virtual school, also chartered by Daleville.

The variety of issues at Indiana Virtual School underscore a wider need to re-examine how the state holds charter school authorizers accountable for their schools.

“There’s a need to have virtual and online platforms available for certain students,” said state board member Tony Walker. “That being said, there are some problems I think with our model that I think are highlighted by this situation … there was a failure of the authorizer to keep proper monitoring and accountability.”

Ultimately, as Indiana lawmakers prepare to begin the 2018 legislative session in January, they can change the law, but it’s hard to say if they will. And though the State Board of Education has the authority to change education policy, it’s unclear how they could affect existing laws or policy around authorizing. At the very least, someone should be paying attention, said Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools.

“There’s no doubt that many of these online schools are disasters,” Petrilli said. “We have now seen in many states both terrible outcomes, but also financial scandals. And so there’s no doubt that policymakers have to figure out a better approach to regulating these entities.”

There are a number of steps Indiana could take to close gaps that allow chronically underperforming schools or subpar authorizers to continue. Here are some options:

Re-evaluate current authorizers to make sure they are up to the state’s standards.

In addition to other authorizing changes made in 2011 and 2013, Indiana created stricter requirements to weed out unfit authorizers in 2015. The move was widely praised — that year and in 2016, the state’s policies earned a top ranking from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But when the law changed, existing authorizers, including Daleville, were grandfathered in and didn’t have to go through the new, more rigorous screening through the Indiana State Board of Education. School districts that applied were automatically approved and didn’t need to complete the rest of the screening.

There’s no definitive consensus about what good authorizing looks like, partially because charter advocates have long lobbied for fewer restrictions. So although Indiana requires that all nine of its authorizers adopt best practices, such as those developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, state charter law lays out no way to enforce it. (Compared to the association’s general guidelines, those on virtual charter schools are much more stringent.)

State Board spokesman Josh Gillespie said only the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United school district has applied to be an authorizer since the rule change, a 1,828-student district about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. The district doesn’t appear to charter any schools at this time.

If the state wanted to send a message that it valued high quality authorizers, it could walk back the grandfathering provision.

Stop allowing authorizers to get paid by the schools they oversee.

Under current law, charter authorizers can collect up 3 percent of a school’s state funding as payment for monitoring.

Authorizers should have the ability to get financial support for their work, sources told Chalkbeat, but that support shouldn’t come from schools themselves. Tony Walker, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education representing Northwest Indiana, said he worries about the fees in particular when it comes to school district authorizers that might already be struggling financially compared to larger state organizations and universities.

“There are inherent conflicts that arise when (a district) is getting chartering fees from the school and they desperately need the money,” Walker said. “I don’t think they have the same resources that Ball State and the (Indiana Charter School Board) have in terms of monitoring and providing support.”

One alternative is that the state could budget to support all authorizers directly. If the money isn’t tied to school enrollment, it could help reduce the incentive to accrue students beyond what a school can actually support.

“The fee is a bad idea,” Harris said. “It creates an incentive to charter schools that shouldn’t be chartered because the authorizer generates revenue from that.”

Keep authorizers and virtual charter operators from opening additional schools or enrolling students if current ones have been consistently low-performing.

Restricting how virtual schools gain students and replicate could make sense even in a state that has long supported online education.

Currently, public charter schools need four years of F grades before the state board can cap enrollment, reduce authorizer fees or close the school.

But there’s already precedent set in Indiana law for how this system could improve to address troubled schools more quickly and automatically. Lawmakers could take a cue from the state’s voucher program.

If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students. Last year the law was tweaked to allow schools to appeal that decision, but the state board can still deny such a request.

Indiana Virtual School, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy — all statewide, full-time online charter schools with consecutive years of F grades — have quietly opened new schools within the past year or so.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to allow low-performing schools to open new schools.

“I think virtual schools should succeed or not be opened,” Kruse said. “So if they can’t get their act together, I think they ought to decide to just close down their schools … If they’re failing with what they’re doing now, why should we allow them to open up more failing schools?”



Indiana online schools

Indiana online charter schools face scrutiny at Congressional committee hearing

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

The chronic low performance of Indiana’s virtual charter schools captured national attention Wednesday in a Congressional committee hearing on the value of charter schools.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, criticized the failed promises of online charter schools across the country, citing their low graduation rates and lack of instructional supports — and she called out Indiana’s lowest-performing online school by name.

Indiana “had Indiana Virtual School that graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state,” Bonamici said.

She also referenced a Chalkbeat story about prominent Republican lawmakers calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of online schools.

Her criticism was in stark contrast to testimony minutes earlier from Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican who praised charter schools for creating more opportunities and lifting academic achievement. He touted Indiana’s charter school laws as a model for other states, though the national reports he referenced have also noted Indiana’s blind spots when it comes to online charter schools.

But Bonamici said advocates lauded charter schools while ignoring the problems of online charter schools. As Chalkbeat has reported, four of the state’s virtual charter schools received F ratings from the state in 2017.

“Shouldn’t there be stronger oversight to make sure these schools are actually serving students, rather than focusing on churning profits?” she asked.

A Chalkbeat investigation highlighted how Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, hired few teachers, and entered into contracts with the school founder’s for-profit company — while collecting tens of millions of dollars in state funding.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said states should better regulate virtual charter schools because of their chronic academic problems, but she still defended online schools, which attract students who might not thrive in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

“You don’t want to completely get rid of them, because for some students, these are the only choices available to them,” Rees said.

Indiana online schools

4 takeaways from Indiana’s first review of its troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: PeopleImages/Getty

At its inaugural meeting Tuesday, a group of Indiana State Board of Education members puzzled over how far they could go to try to fix the many problems facing the state’s virtual charter schools — and it turns out, they have more power than they might have thought.

Tim Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, said the committee — and by extension, the full state board — can explore whatever policy areas it wishes.

“The only restriction on this is the board’s imagination,” Schultz said.

That may come as a surprise to some onlookers, since state officials have created few regulations governing virtual charter schools that receive millions in taxpayer dollars but post disappointing academic results.

Read: In the Wild West of virtual learning, an Indiana charter school is opening in an unlikely place — a farm

The only board-drafted rules in place, written in 2010 in the early days of online charter schools, mostly contained definitions and guidance on counting students for funding purposes. It amounted to two printed pages, in contrast to the dozens of pages the board has devoted to other issues such as A-F accountability grades and dropout recovery, said Gordon Hendry, a state board member and the chairman of the committee looking into online charter schools.

So it is clear, Hendry said, that policymakers have more work to do.

One area where the board might need some help from lawmakers is state funding. The board can’t unilaterally decide to change how much money virtual charter schools get per student, for example, since that is specified in the state’s school funding formula.

A critical area to watch will be in what — if anything — the state board can do to address how virtual charter schools are overseen, which lawmakers attempted to take on unsuccessfully earlier this year.

Here are four takeaways from the group’s discussion:

Indiana is not the only state struggling to shore up online charter schools — but other states have made more progress

Schultz presented numerous examples of possible policy changes from other states that Indiana could adopt or use as a jumping-off point. For example, Colorado and Florida more closely track how much students are participating in their online work and how often they are attending online classes.

Minnesota even requires written parental approval for a student to enroll in a virtual program, Schultz said. That move could make it easier for schools to engage with parents right off the bat, and help them understand more about what virtual learning requires and how it differs from a traditional school.

“Many states are pursuing a much more active involvement on the front end,” Schultz said. “It’s not uniform across the board, but a number of states have now taken the position that enrollment does not occur until a student has gone through orientation, or some form of that.”

Schultz also pointed to how Florida requires virtual charter schools provide computer equipment for students poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. In New Mexico, he said, students get help accessing assistive technology, which are devices or tools that can make using computers easier for students with special needs.

In South Carolina, students are required to have 25 percent of their instruction be taught live, while other states put limits on how high student-to-teacher ratios can reach.

All of these steps could improve student performance at Indiana’s virtual charter schools, where more than 13,000 student attend school, state board staff said. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school in the state received an F grade from the state, and despite small improvements from the prior year, most schools had fewer students passing English and math exams than the state average.

“We’re not alone in this,” Schultz said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Indiana doesn’t have rules for virtual charter schools on even some of the basic issues

Board members were surprised to learn online schools lack regulations around teachers. Indiana has no limits — for virtual charter schools or any other schools, for that matter — on how large class sizes can be or on how many teachers schools must hire. That means student-to-teacher ratios can vary widely.

The state also hasn’t clarified, specifically in regards to virtual schools, whether teachers have to be Indiana residents on top of having an Indiana teaching license.

“I just am shocked that we have questions about these things,” said board member Cari Whicker.

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

On average across the U.S., public schools tend to have one teacher for every 16 students, while virtual schools have one teacher for every 45, as reported by the National Education Policy Center.

In Indiana, virtual charter schools’ ratios run the gamut, according to 2017 data from the state presented Tuesday, but averaged at about one teacher for every 60 students. Here’s how it broke down in specific schools:

  • Indiana Connections Academy: One teacher for every 29 students
  • Insight School of Indiana: One teacher for every 41 students
  • Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School: One teacher for every 49 students
  • Indiana Virtual School: One teacher for every 123 students

Students who tend to enroll in virtual charter schools need a lot more support across the board

Ron Sandlin, the state board’s director of school performance and transformation, pointed out that Indiana’s virtual charter school students typically spend less than two years in an online school, and when they get there, they’ve usually already spent several years in high school.

So it’s not just incumbent on virtual schools to improve of student performance — the state needs to ensure students have the support they need before they get there, too.

Falling behind grade level before transferring to an online school could be one reason why the schools’ state test scores and graduation rates are particularly low. If students come in behind grade level and are very transient, it doesn’t set them up to do well on tests or finish school on time.

Next steps: Data, data, and more data

Hendry, Whicker, and the third committee member, Maryanne McMahon all had areas they wanted to explore as the committee continues to meet monthly.

Hendry said he’d like more information on virtual education programs that aren’t charter schools. That could include a rural district that, as Chalkbeat reported, is pulling in hundreds of students from across the state with its new online program.

Whicker said she wanted more information from authorizers, the entities that oversee virtual charter schools.

“What it sounds like is in Indiana, they have the freedom to set their own policies,” Whicker said. She was curious about what current authorizers were doing and how they make decisions on how to monitor schools.

And McMahon said she’s interested in seeing success stories: Where is virtual education working?

All agreed there was still a lot of work to do. Board member David Freitas, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting, said policymakers have a big responsibility ahead of them.

“It’s sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant — at this point there are so many issues,” he said. “Where do we start?”