action steps

Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the Indiana Virtual School’s “unsatisfactory” performance — which includes two years of F grades, low ISTEP scores and high student-teacher ratio — requires policymakers to get involved.

In October, Chalkbeat reported that Indiana Virtual School, one of the state’s largest online charter schools, had received more than $20 million from the state while graduating about 61 students. And between at least 2011 and 2015, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent.

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

“The state shouldn’t allow schools that have that poor of performance to continue,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat in a one-on-one interview. “I look forward over this next year, with the state board of education, to help put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance. Poor performance would be putting it lightly.”

Holcomb is not alone in calling for Indiana to address the poor academic track records of statewide online charter schools, even though Indiana has long embraced charter schools and school choice.

Former state schools chief Glenda Ritz said virtual schools aren’t a sufficient alternative to traditional schools. State board member Tony Walker said he was shocked by Indiana Virtual’s low number of teachers, while The Mind Trust’s David Harris thinks the state should place a renewed focus on the quality of authorizers, the groups that oversee charters in Indiana. Indiana Virtual is one of the few schools in the state to be overseen by a public school district, Daleville Schools, a small rural district near Muncie.

Also on Thursday, the Indiana State Teachers Association called for a moratorium on virtual charter school growth as well as a funding formula fix based on academic progress, not enrollment. ISTA also asked more broadly for more scrutiny of charter school finances and for the state education department to “approve and monitor a plan to prevent financial and enrollment fraud, waste and abuse.”

Indiana Virtual and its sister school that opened this year, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, together enroll 6,332 students. Across the state, more than 12,000 students are enrolled in online charters, most of which earned F grades this year. Two other major online charters, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy, also opened new schools in the past year or so.

Holcomb said he understands it can take authorizers time to make changes to address poor academics in the schools they oversee, but children only have so many years to spare.

At this point, Holcomb said he doesn’t see a need just yet for legislation addressing online schools, although he wouldn’t rule it out. He said his team has communicated with the state board that this area needs “immediate attention and action.” It’s not yet clear what measures they want to introduce, or how much authority the state board has to change charter school rules, but he indicated authorizing could be on the list.

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

“This next year we’ll be looking at all these issues to say how can we best give students options that fit their needs while at the same time (give) parents and taxpayers confidence that these options are worthy,” Holcomb said. “I think the state board, in this instance, can right the ship.”

 

Indiana online schools

Indiana Virtual School has the lowest graduation rate of any public school in the state

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

For the second year in a row, Indiana Virtual School graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state.

In 2017, 6.5 percent of students graduated — 64 students out of 985. Of the schools the state provided data for, only a private school that caters to students with significant intellectual and behavioral disabilities posted lower numbers. Indiana Virtual’s rate is up slightly from 5.7 percent the year before.

It’s possible there are other schools with lower graduation rates, but the state does not release data for schools with fewer than 10 students in the graduating class to comply with federal privacy laws.

The graduation data, released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, comes months after a Chalkbeat Investigation found widespread low performance at Indiana Virtual School and questionable business and spending practices.

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

From 2016 to 2017, the school’s graduating class more than doubled. Last May, Indiana Virtual School enrolled nearly 4,700 students. Despite Indiana Virtual’s poor performance, it continues to bring in millions of dollars from the state. In September, it opened a second school. After shifting almost 3,000 of its students to the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy in the fall, Indiana Virtual had 3,376 students.

Indiana Virtual has received two failing grades from the state since it opened in 2011. Last year, 20 percent of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students and 8 percent of 10th-graders at Indiana Virtual passed the English and math state tests. Statewide, about half of students in grades K-8 and one-third of high school students passed both exams.

Thomas Burroughs, the school’s lawyer and former board member, defended the school’s performance to Chalkbeat in October, saying the school offers a last chance to students who would have no other way to graduate. The school’s superintendent, Percy Clark, also said many students at the school enroll after having been expelled elsewhere and start behind their peers.

Across the state, 87.2 percent of students graduated from high school in 2017. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students in a high school cohort by the number of them who graduate as seniors after four years.

Every online charter school in Indiana graduated fewer students than the state as a whole, though some, such as Indiana Connections Academy and Hoosier Academy Indianapolis, a hybrid school with a traditional campus on the city’s east side, show marked improvement from last year. Insight School of Indiana has no data for 2016 because it had not yet opened.

School 2017 graduation rate 2016 graduation rate
Indiana Virtual School 6.50% 5.7%
Hoosier Academy Indianapolis 68.42% 53.3%
Insight School of Indiana 17.21%
Hoosier Academy Virtual 23.32% 22.7%
Indiana Connections Academy 49.48% 43.9%

Although Gov. Eric Holcomb has already committed to working with the state board to look into online charter schools, he has not specified what action they will take. Earlier this month, lawmakers also proposed laws to tighten up the state’s rules for charter school oversight, but this soon in the legislative session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get.

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

bills

Two Indiana Senate bills would tighten up rules for charter school oversight

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Both of these bills are coming from lawmakers who are part of the Senate Education Committee.

Two Indiana senators — a Republican and a Democrat — are calling for the state to reform how charter schools are overseen.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, an Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat also on the committee, have each proposed a bill to ensure charter school authorizers cannot open new schools or renew charters without evidence that students are learning.

The bills come two months after a Chalkbeat investigation revealed that while the small Daleville Community School District charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has appeared to follow state law, it isn’t necessarily meeting the needs of the school’s thousands of students.

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

The district was on track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year overseeing Indiana Virtual, which over its six-year lifespan has earned two F-grades and, in 2016, managed to muster only single-digit graduation rates. The school continues to bring in millions of state dollars for its students, and in September, opened up a second school, also chartered by Daleville.

Kruse’s Senate Bill 350 says an authorizer cannot offer a contract, or charter, to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically. Organizers are nonprofits that run charter schools. They’d have to provide evidence that could include test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, increased numbers of students taking advanced classes or earning honors diplomas.

The bill would require the Indiana Department of Education to create rules by Nov. 1 to prevent charter school organizers from committing financial or enrollment “fraud, waste and abuse.” Schools would also have to submit an annual report that includes audits, the most recent enrollment count, and a list of employee salaries.

Currently, Indiana authorizers — which include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. This bill would empower the state board to more closely scrutinize and take action regarding charter schools and authorizers.

If the department finds the school was in violation, the department would be required to tell the organizer and recommend that the state board do one of the following:

  • Require the school’s authorizer to revoke its charter,
  • Withhold funding from the school, or
  • Require the school to take action to remedy its problems.

Stoops’ Senate Bill 315 goes even further by placing more restrictions on authorizers that are school districts or universities. He said he wasn’t aware that Kruse was offering a bill on the same topic, but that he looks forward to talking with him about it. He’s worked unsuccessfully before to regulate authorizing, but new information about online charter schools has spurred him to address it again this year.

“Charter schools are a little out of control,” Stoops said. “They continue to take students even when they fail, and the whole issue of how authorizers get a cut of their funding, so there’s a lot of incentive for authorizers to create these new schools.”

The bill removes the 2015 grandfathering provision that let existing authorizers avoid screening by the Indiana State Board of Education before they were allowed to open charter schools. Under the bill, these authorizers must now be screened before they can renew existing charters or authorize new schools.

The bill does not change the fact that the state board does not screen school districts, such as Daleville, but instead requires them to register as authorizers, and they are automatically approved.

Stoops also included language in the bill that would give charter school authorizers stricter rules around what state grades are needed to open or renew schools. The bill says that an authorizer may not sponsor a charter school if that school’s organizer already runs a school in Indiana that has received a D or F grade for two consecutive years.

Read: In danger of closure, virtual charter surprises state board by transferring students to sister school

Like in the state’s voucher law, grades would be factored into whether charter schools can enroll new students under Stoops’ plan.

Starting July 1, a charter school that earns a D or F for two consecutive years cannot accept new students for one year. If the school earns a third D or F, the school may not accept new students until it earns a C-grade or better for two consecutive years. If a school earns an F grade for three consecutive years, it cannot enroll new students until it has received a C-grade or better for three consecutive years.

The bill also would eliminate the fees all authorizers can collect for overseeing schools starting in July. Now, authorizers can get up to 3 percent of a charter school’s state funding.

Although these provisions don’t apply to all authorizers, David Harris, executive director for The Mind Trust, said he worries aspects of both bills infringe on the autonomy that can also make charter schools successful. The Mind Trust works closely with Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office on supporting mayor-sponsored charter schools in Indianapolis.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” Harris said.

This early in the session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get. Committee chairs like Kruse tend to advance bills they author, but Stoops’ bill faces another hurdle: Democrats are in the vast minority in the General Assembly, and it’s the majority party that has the discretion to say what merits discussion. That said, Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has already committed to working with the state board to look into virtual schools.

Ultimately, Stoops said that the track records and poor performance of some charter schools and online schools speak for themselves, and he thinks it’s causing policymakers to take a second look at how to regulate them.

“How do they get away with it?” Stoops said. “I think that’s definitely worth dealing with.”