Indiana online schools

A tiny Indiana district is banking on virtual education to survive. But at what cost?

PHOTO: Hero Images

In one year, a tiny rural Indiana school district more than tripled its enrollment, growing to nearly 1,000 students. But more than 800 of those students learn exclusively through a virtual education program — and despite fully funding it, the state has no way to know how well it’s doing.

State officials, researchers and the public can’t easily determine if students are learning because Union Schools’ virtual program and others like it are not distinct schools. Their student performance, enrollment, teaching staffs, and other data are rolled into existing brick-and-mortar schools.

Indiana lawmakers are starting to pay attention to the rapid growth in Union and realizing that programs like these could come at considerable cost. Unexpected growth in public schools is throwing off school funding estimates. Although virtual education programs are only one contributing factor, they are part of a larger shortfall creating a stir during this year’s legislative session.

There’s no way of tracking exactly where these virtual programs exist, how much they cost, or how students are performing.

As a result, lawmakers are taking steps to learn more about districts that pursue in-house virtual education programs and how pervasive they are across the state. District-run programs like the one at Union have operated largely unnoticed, even as online charter schools have shown dismal academic results and attracted scandal in Indiana and across the country.

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

Despite that, districts are using online learning to strategically expand their offerings — and as a profit stream.

“That’s where we’ve seen the greatest growth in K-12 online learning, is with the district-based programs,” said Michael Barbour, a researcher and professor from Touro University in California. “Districts have been losing (students) to these cyber charter schools for so long that they essentially want to develop an in-house version.”

Superintendent Allen Hayne said Union Rockets Virtual Academy has given his students more opportunities for learning. Even though Union is a tiny rural district about 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the program attracts students from more than 70 counties across the state. The boost in students has kept the district afloat financially as residential enrollment has waned, a trend for rural districts across the state.

Union operates its program with K12 Inc., one of the largest virtual education providers in the country. K12 also operates three Hoosier Academies charter schools, one of which is set to close in June.

Union’s growth came as a surprise to state lawmakers — and it was concerning enough that they’re crafting legislation that would require schools to submit yearly reports about their in-district virtual programs.

Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, last week amended Senate Bill 189, focused on school funding, to add in requirements for district-based virtual programs. By October, districts with these programs would have to report virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Brown said. “We need some data before you can necessarily take an analysis of what you think should happen in the future.”

The lack of distinct data on in-house virtual programs, Barbour said, means there’s almost no evidence that shows whether they are working.

“We have no easy way of discerning how the kids are doing compared to other online programs or compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts because they are masked by everybody else,” Barbour said.

What we know about virtual education comes from research on virtual charter schools. On the whole, statewide virtual charter schools have shown poor student achievement: Every full-time Indiana online charter school received an F from the state in 2017.

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

But there are ways for districts to be more transparent. They can establish a separate school, which would allow their results to stand on their own.

Wayne Township has long had a separate, full-time online school, which primarily serves students who live within an hour of the district. Achieve Virtual Education Academy has existed in some form since 1999, starting as a distance-learning program. This year, the school enrolled 220 students, and in 2017, it was rated a D.

All of Achieve’s state data — test scores, graduation rate, enrollment, teacher evaluations — are available through Indiana’s state data website.

It’s still too early for Union to know how its virtual students are doing — because they just started, they haven’t tested yet. But the program has been popular, Hayne said. He gets phone calls just about every day from parents asking to enroll their students, and more than 200 students are on a waiting list.

Part of the reason Union pursued a virtual program was financial. The district needed to attract more students, and this was an easy way that also allowed them to expand course offerings for students living and attending school within the district.

The financial incentive for creating a district-run virtual program instead of becoming a charter school authorizer is appealing — and it offers the district more control.

First, authorizers can only collect up to 3 percent in fees from schools they oversee. Union’s contract with K12 Inc. nets them 5 percent. And unlike in online charter schools, virtual students in district programs get 100 percent of the state funding that traditional schools receive. Virtual charter schools get only 90 percent.

Overall, Hayne said Union ends up with about a few hundred thousand dollars.

“It kind of did a stop-gap measure for us. We’re not rolling in the money, to say the least,” Hayne said. “It kind of made us break even within our budget.”

Union’s strategy isn’t the only way to run a virtual program. Decatur Township, on the southwest side of Indianapolis, intentionally keeps its program small and mostly local, enrolling students from within 25 miles of district boundaries.

Decatur Township’s “MyLearning Virtual” program has been around for almost two years and currently enrolls 57 students, said assistant superintendent Nate Davis.

“We really don’t have any plans for major growth,” Davis said. “What we really want to do is use it … for a specific niche population within our school community that needs an alternative to a brick-and-mortar option.”

But as with Union, information about Decatur’s virtual enrollment size or student achievement isn’t distinct and isn’t available to the public.

That’s where Brown’s amendment would come in.

Still, the bill is currently in limbo. It’s one of two school funding bills lawmakers are negotiating during these last couple of weeks of session. It’s unclear at this point which version will move ahead. The virtual education issue didn’t receive much debate.

Chalkbeat’s investigation into Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online charter school that spent little of its state dollars on teachers and instruction, has spurred some interest from lawmakers in virtual education, but their attempts to make change so far have failed. Three other bills proposed this year that would have tightened rules for charter school authorizers and limited growth based on test scores were never given a hearing.

The financial incentives from the state, both for IVS and district-based virtual programs, means it’s likely that virtual education will continue to grow in Indiana.

Brown’s amendment could bring the state information about growth, but it wouldn’t do much to inform the debate about whether full-time virtual education is good for students. Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who also wants the state to look more closely at virtual schools and ratchet up consequences for low graduation rate, said the status quo isn’t enough.

“It is imperative that we have some transparency when it comes to virtual education,” Porter said. “Hopefully this summer, or next year when we do the budget … we’ll look at it in a hard way.”

reviewing the rules

Hoosiers paid $1 million for a rural district to oversee online charter schools. Is it too much?

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

Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district northeast of Indianapolis, oversees more than 6,000 students statewide who learn exclusively in online charter schools — and the district received a payment of $1 million in state funds last year for doing so.

The compensation is provided to charter school authorizers under Indiana law in exchange for ensuring the schools adhere to rules and perform well academically. But critics are raising questions about the payments to Daleville, and their arguments illustrate ongoing tensions about the state’s foray into virtual education and how authorizers are regulated.

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

The two online schools overseen by Daleville, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, have shown poor academic performance and questionable financial and operational practices, leading some policymakers to question how successful Daleville has been at holding the schools accountable. Others criticize Daleville for spending some of the payments on students within the district, instead of those in the charter schools they oversee.

Whether the district should receive the funds at all is also an open question among policymakers. Indiana law doesn’t specifically say school districts that authorize charter schools can receive the funding the way university, city or state-level authorizers do — leading some to wonder whether the funding actually provides a financial incentive for authorizers to enroll more students and keep failing schools open.

“It’s hard to believe you need $1 million to effectively oversee (two schools),” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust and former Indianapolis charter school director. “Every single authority on authorizing would question if that’s an ethical practice.”

These issues came to a head last week at a meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education’s committee to review virtual charter schools. As online charter schools are drawing the scrutiny of state and national policymakers for their poor performance, Indiana education leaders are also increasingly concerned that school districts might not be able to provide the proper oversight for virtual charter schools that serve the entire state, particularly if they rely on revenue from monitoring them.

Indiana law says authorizers can decide whether to charge charter schools up to 3 percent of their state tuition dollars, which are based on student enrollment. Daleville charges the full 3 percent for each school.

The Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, by contrast, oversees more than 40 charter schools serving about 15,000 kids. It charges its schools 1 percent and collected a little more than $864,000 in 2017.

State law says the fees must be spent “exclusively for the purpose of fulfilling authorizing obligations.”

At last week’s hearing, Daleville Superintendent Paul Garrison said that its oversight fees pay for online course fees for Daleville’s traditional public school students. The fees have also been used to buy computers, pay salaries for district staffers involved with authorizing, and pay for an in-house charter school evaluation tool, among other expenses, he said. It was not clear from Daleville’s state financial reports exactly how the fees were broken down among those costs.

But board member and committee chairman Gordon Hendry said he was concerned that the amount of revenue Daleville was bringing in from authorizing might compromise its ability to make decisions. Indiana Virtual School has received an F grade from the state for two years in a row and in 2017 had the lowest graduation rate of any public school in the state. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is still too new to have received a grade, but it already enrolls almost 3,000 students, many of whom came from Indiana Virtual School.

“We’re talking about accountability and success, but you’re making $1 million a year that’s going to fund your school district,” Hendry said.

Garrison defended how the money was being spent, saying it gave Daleville students more opportunities and met the state’s criteria.

But Brown said Garrison’s explanation for how Daleville spent its fees troubled him.

“When I hear about a school district charging 3 percent, it raises red flags around how that money is being used and whether students attending the virtual charter school are subsidizing children who attend the school district,” Brown said. “That seems like a fundamental problem.”

Since last fall, state leaders and Gov. Eric Holcomb have called for action to remedy some of the known problems in virtual schools — high mobility, low academic achievement, and little regulation. The state board’s committee, formed earlier this year, aims to address some of these issues with recommendations to the full board and state lawmakers.

One way the state could change its policy is in how it structures authorizer fees.

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

Karega Rausch, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said oversight fees should be limited to work that is needed to actually monitor a charter school. If an authorizer has other responsibilities that aren’t related to charter schools, those should be completely separate.

Rausch also previously told Chalkbeat that charter authorizing payments should be based on costs, and states should require authorizers justify the amount they need to oversee schools. One option is for the state to pay authorizers directly, distancing oversight fees from student enrollment.

That could lower the likelihood that authorizing could be seen as a profitable funding strategy.

At last week’s hearing, Hendry raised the possibility that the revenue was creating a perverse incentive to keep low-performing schools open.

“Is it really that realistic that you would consider closing the school for poor performance, for lack of growth or lack of success, if you’re receiving a pretty healthy income stream every year?” Hendry said.

Garrison said the district was prepared to make the decision to close a school, if need be, and that officials weren’t looking at charter authorizing as a “cash cow.”

“It would be a difficult decision, but what I’m going to tell you is we care about kids,” Garrison said. “We want progress, and if it looks like we can’t get progress, we can make that decision.”

The state’s two other district authorizers, Evansville and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson, are split in how they approach fees. Evansville doesn’t collect them at all, while Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson said it plans to ask for 3 percent. The school it oversees, Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, opened at the end of July.

Read: Facing state scrutiny, Indiana charter school steps back from virtual plan

Districts who want to be involved with virtual schools do have another option that avoids the legal murkiness charter authorizing can bring: Union Township, another small rural district near Muncie, created a virtual learning program within its district in a contract with K12 Inc. that nets them 5 percent of the student funding — more than what they’d get as an authorizer.

Many Indiana school districts, feeling the effects of declining state contributions, property tax caps that limit local dollars that flow to schools, and falling enrollment, have turned to alternative funding sources in recent years.

Having an in-house virtual program means the district is responsible for running the program, not just monitoring it. But using an outside vendor for curriculum and hiring cuts down on the costs of starting from scratch.

Read: A tiny Indiana district is banking on virtual education to survive. But at what cost?

In some cases, Indiana policymakers are questioning whether school district authorizers should be paid oversight fees at all. Indiana law is silent on whether districts can collect such fees like their counterparts at the university, city, and state level.

Indiana State Board of Education member Tony Walker has spoken out against districts collecting fees, especially ones that might be facing low enrollment and declining state funds. State Sen. Mark Stoops, a Democrat from Bloomington, filed unsuccessful legislation last year that would’ve eliminated authorizer fees entirely.

Lawmakers have indicated they want to make changes to virtual school policy, though it’s still far too early to know what those might look like. During last year’s legislative session, Republican legislators called for more information on how district-based virtual programs are funded. Indiana Democrats have also been vocal about bolstering regulations for online charter schools.

Brown said education advocates can’t afford to look the other way on these issues.

“We have irrefutable proof that virtual charter schools are generally not good for kids,” he said. “And as a strong charter school advocate, I think it’s critically important that the reform community step up and make accountability for virtual charter schools a critical issue.”

Indiana online schools

As Indiana’s virtual charters struggle, some school leaders balk at more oversight

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Indiana online charter schools told state officials Wednesday that they deserve special consideration because of the student populations they serve.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School, Indiana Connections Academy, and Hoosier Academies, which all operate online, said that they are more likely than traditional schools to serve students who are below grade level, who frequently move, and who face other hurdles. Those challenges are reflected in the schools’ poor test scores, F grades from the state, and low graduation rates, they say.

School leaders said that state officials should reconsider how they measure virtual charter schools and add in such supports as better student data-tracking and enabling online schools to work more formally with families before they enroll their children. Indiana’s online charter schools serve students from every county in the state and allow students from grades K-12 to learn at their own pace from just about anywhere.

“We should be held accountable in more than just the academic arena,” said Percy Clark, superintendent for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which Chalkbeat investigated last year. “Every ill that you want to name plagues our students.”

Clark mentioned teaching students who were homeless and ones who were balancing high school coursework with the demands of raising young children.

But members of the Indiana State Board of Education’s committee on virtual charter schools kept going back to the seeming inability of these schools to serve their students. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school received an F-grade from the state; these grades are based primarily on test scores and the high school graduation rate.

The committee met for the second time Wednesday. Its chairman, Gordon Hendry, said he walked away with a lot of unanswered questions. He wants to hear more about how the schools operate and what their data shows.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Hendry said.

The committee grilled the groups that run and oversee Indiana’s troubled virtual charter schools for more than three hours. Few of the schools could offer specific ways to solve their academic shortcomings. And despite concerns about oversight, the schools’ authorizers — the entities that monitor charter schools in Indiana — said the state need not add any laws to further accountability.

Clark said virtual education is still in its infancy in the state. If Indiana steps in too aggressively and forces the schools to close, students will lose much-needed options.

“This is like killing a baby,” Clark said.

Hendry pointed out that Indiana has had full-time virtual learning in place for almost 10 years. Connections and Hoosier Academy schools began as pilot programs in 2009. Indiana Virtual School opened in 2011.

Clark wants the state to focus less on things like the graduation rate and test scores, and more on how many credits students come in with and the extent to which that number increases after they attend virtual schools. He pointed to his school’s data that shows many students come to them as seniors who aren’t on-track to graduate.

Mary Gifford, a senior vice president with K12 Inc., the national for-profit that manages Hoosier Academies, and Melissa Brown, executive director for Connections, focused more on support they wanted from the state. Gifford said taking the temperature on metrics like graduation rates more frequently, even every semester, would be a welcome change. Brown said she wanted to see policy changes that would ensure online schools had more time to work with families before they enroll their children.

The more families know what they are getting into, Brown said, the more they can be sure the school is a good fit for their child.

“Students are taking this lightly, and that’s a problem,” Brown said. “I don’t think they understand all that is involved with being in a virtual school.”

But neither Ball State University, which oversees Connections and Hoosier Academies, nor Daleville Public Schools, which oversees Indiana Virtual School, saw a need for the state’s charter-authorizing law to change.

“What’s currently on the books is fine,” said Bob Marra, executive director for Ball State’s office of charter schools. “The oversight is there.”

Paul Garrison, Daleville’s superintendent, said there should be consistent standards for authorizing charter schools, regardless of whether they are traditional or virtual.

The committee was formed by the state board following calls from Gov. Eric Holcomb and lawmakers to address the schools’ poor performance and insufficient oversight.

Hendry said at an earlier meeting that its goal is to make recommendations for new policies and laws that might help the schools. The committee will continue to meet through the end of the calendar year.