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 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.