Indiana online schools

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

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, set to open in July, will have a physical outpost on a farm in southern Indiana.

Six hundred acres of mostly dormant farmland, ponds, and forest in southern Indiana hardly seem like they would be the centerpiece of the state’s newest virtual charter school. But when founder Allan Sutherlin looks out over the land, he sees that and more.

Sutherlin, a long-time political operative, says he wants to fundamentally change how Hoosier students learn about agriculture, starting with the perhaps counterintuitive idea of using a farm as the physical outpost of the online Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, set to open in July.

Sutherlin and his team are laying these ambitious plans at a time when virtual charter schools across the country are growing rapidly and facing criticism for failing to serve students. What’s unclear is whether the school can live up to its lofty promises, or end up serving as another illustration of how Indiana’s charter school law fails to adequately regulate virtual schools.

Already, Indiana Agriculture and Technology School has hurdles to overcome. Its founder and academic director have ties to other virtual charter schools with questionable track records. The school will be monitored by an inexperienced rural public school district, a model that charter school advocates worry won’t provide sufficient oversight and is allowed under what some see as a loophole in Indiana state law.

And the farm itself was purchased for the school by the school board’s treasurer, also a co-founder, who will eventually charge the school rent — a deal whose full details haven’t been made public. Meanwhile, school leaders say that it’s unclear when students will have access to the farm and that students won’t be required to visit the property, despite a promotional video promising “students will gain real hands-on knowledge and skills” at the “farm campus.”

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

Sutherlin and his colleagues say they intend to learn from mistakes made by other virtual schools, including ones they were connected to. They say they have faith in their first-time authorizer. And after inquiries from Chalkbeat, school officials said the school board member whose firm purchased the land will step down from the post.

Backers of the agriculture school portray it as an innovative way for students anywhere in the state to be trained for agriculture careers when Indiana’s economy desperately needs them.

Still, the unconventional circumstances surrounding the school’s opening underscore the lack of regulations in Indiana’s charter school sector, a Wild West where almost anyone can propose a new school and potentially gain access to state funding. The agriculture school will be the third virtual charter school to open in Indiana in the past year, bringing Indiana’s total to seven for next school year and mirroring fast growth in the sector nationwide.

Despite poor academic performance and financial problems at some of these schools — including four virtual charter schools the state gave F grades to in 2017 — Indiana lawmakers killed three separate attempts to strengthen laws surrounding the oversight of charter schools this year.

Even for supporters of charter school expansion, the planned opening of an online agriculture school serving kids in grades 7 through 12 raises questions, particularly at a time when the drawbacks of virtual education are becoming more widely known.

“It just strikes me as a little bit bizarre, having a full-time virtual agriculture school,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The marrying of these two just doesn’t, at least on the surface, just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. … I’m concerned that new full-time virtual charter schools are opening up in Indiana, given the problems they have with the current batch of them.”

The Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is home to several different types of terrain, including wetlands and forest.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is home to several different types of terrain, including wetlands and forest.

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Sutherlin, the school’s founder, is known across Indiana for his influential state and national political career, but he describes a more humble beginning — he grew up in Fillmore, Indiana, on a farm, the son of two teachers. After spending his childhood learning about farming and agriculture from his father and grandfather and showing cattle and hogs at the state fair, he went to school to become a veterinarian, then veered into studying life sciences and microbiology instead. Ultimately deciding against a graduate degree, he landed a job with Gov. Robert Orr’s office as an environmental advisor in the 1980s.

In that position, he kickstarted what would become a decades-long career in politics, including roles advising Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. In the early 1980s, he also helped orchestrate controversial changes to Indiana’s political districts, which contributed to a wave of changes that set up the Republican Party to win a majority in Congress. Now, he’s a political consultant in Indiana. He ran a successful campaign for Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and maintains other local clients.

Sutherlin told Chalkbeat that he’s been working on the idea for the school for years — specifically, how to get Indiana students to understand the role agriculture plays in the state and in their lives. He said at least five years ago he was beginning those conversations with a founding board member at Indiana Virtual School, which a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation revealed was bringing in more than $20 million of state funding despite its two consecutive F grades from the state and single-digit graduation rate. A spokesperson from Indiana Virtual didn’t respond to a request for comment but in the past has said the school enrolls many students who struggle in traditional schools and often come in below grade level.

Following Chalkbeat’s investigation and a call to action from Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education formed a committee in May to look into virtual school rules and regulations. Holcomb and board members have said they are concerned about the schools’ performance. That committee is set to meet for the first time in early June.

Sutherlin also became involved with Indiana Virtual School about two years ago as a consultant, when he worked on an application to replicate it in Texas. He was included in communications from the school to Chalkbeat as recently as December. But he said in March that he is no longer working with Indiana Virtual and that a confidentiality agreement blocked him from sharing specifics about his consulting work. Indiana Virtual School did not respond to a request for comment about Sutherlin’s work there.

“I’m not working directly with Indiana Virtual School at this moment,” Sutherlin said. “They might give me a call and ask me a question, but I don’t have a direct relationship … I’m a businessman, and I don’t want to turn away clients if they need my help.”

While opening a virtual school wasn’t his initial plan, it was a way to advance Sutherlin’s dreams of expanding agriculture education in the state. The agriculture school, Sutherlin said, is a “completely different model” that is learning from the mistakes of other virtual charters.

Typically, full-time virtual schools put few restrictions on how and when students learn, opting for a wide-open schedule that some parents and students have told Chalkbeat is the reason they sought virtual learning in the first place. The agriculture school will require four to six hours a day of online class work, done as self-paced modules and not taught live. It will also split its 188-day school year into nine-week chunks, which the school hopes will make it easier for students to stay on-track. These limits can also ensure students don’t fall too far behind, school leaders said.

The school also plans to structure its staff more like a traditional high school’s than many virtual schools do, with lead teachers, subject-specific teachers, tutors, and other educators who act as social workers and counselors — all certified in Indiana. The school is shooting for a teacher-to-student ratio of about 1 to 75, which is much lower than Indiana Virtual School, which had one teacher for every 222 students at the end of the 2016-17 school year. But it’s still far higher than traditional schools and reports from Indiana online charter schools run by K12 Inc. and Connections, two large national online education providers.

Students will have face-to-face time with teachers during some video study sessions, and teachers will grade their work, track progress, and periodically travel to students’ homes, school staff says. The school also plans to take live attendance every day. Indiana has no set requirements for measuring attendance — some schools, such as Indiana Virtual School, have counted students present if they enroll, resulting in 100 percent attendance rates over the past few years. Others, such as Indiana Connections Academy, pull their rates from how often students actually log on to do work — more in line with how the agriculture school says it will operate.

These elements were designed in part by Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director. Marsh said he didn’t expect to return to virtual charters after another school where he held the same role was shuttered amid academic and financial trouble. Indiana Cyber Charter School was shut down in 2015 by its authorizer, Education One, following a significant drop in test scores and financial management issues, including vendors not getting paid, according to a spokeswoman for Education One.

“That’s when I said I’m pretty much done with virtual until this opportunity came along,” said Marsh, who spent much of his early career as an administrator in private and township schools across the state.

But when Marsh heard about the school through a different consulting project, he said he saw an opportunity to try again to get online learning right for Indiana students. “I really want our school to kind of be a model for … how virtual education should work,” Marsh said.

Keith Marsh, academic director at Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, explains aspects of the farm's hands-on learning plans.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Keith Marsh, academic director at Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, explains plans for the farm’s hands-on learning.

The vision for the school also excited Timothy Edsell, the superintendent of  Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district, when Sutherlin approached him about a year ago. Sutherlin needed an “authorizer,” or a state-endorsed entity that would sign off on the plans and monitor the school’s performance and operations over time.

Sutherlin said the 1,868-student district was a good fit because it is part of a rural, agriculture-focused community the school hopes to appeal to. Although the district has never supervised a charter school, Edsell said, it sought — and quickly received — approval from the Indiana State Board of Education to become an authorizer last year.

That a small district would supervise a statewide virtual school is not unprecedented. The troubled Indiana Virtual School, where Sutherlin was a consultant, is also overseen by a small rural district, Daleville Public Schools.

“It’s uncharted territory for us because obviously we’ve never done something like this before,” Edsell said of the decision to authorize the agriculture school. “From the monitoring aspect, one of our biggest concerns is to make sure there is success.”

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But the rural district has waded into a murky part of Indiana charter school law that has — perhaps inadvertently — given it the power to oversee statewide schools.

In a 2015 law, lawmakers clarified numerous specifics surrounding charter school authorizing. The law spelled out that local districts like Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson can only authorize charter schools within their boundaries, while colleges and the Indiana Charter School Board could be statewide authorizers. It also kept a provision from 2011 that says virtual schools are to be overseen by statewide authorizers.

But there are still parts that lack clarity — the law didn’t explicitly allow or prohibit local districts from overseeing statewide virtual schools, even though doing so would mean they could potentially take responsibility for thousands of students far outside their physical boundaries.

“That’s a big loophole in Indiana law, unfortunately,” said Ziebarth, with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson is “probably meeting the letter of the law,” said Rep. Bob Behning, the 2015 law’s author, but the wider issue is “something we’re going to have to look at.”

Some critics question whether a local district has the resources to act as a statewide authorizer and oversee a school with students across Indiana. It’s not uncommon for districts to have only one person, or sometimes a part-time person, doing the main authorizing work in addition to their district jobs.

“Most places you have district capacity issues to oversee any charter school, let alone a statewide charter school,” said Karega Rausch, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Authorizers in Indiana do stand to benefit financially from the schools they oversee. Edsell said the district planned to collect 3 percent of the school’s state funding in oversight fees. If the school opens with its planned 550 students, that could be more than $70,000. So far, only about 80 students have committed to the school, Marsh said.

Sutherlin said he decided to approach Edsell about authorizing, rather than a more experienced statewide authorizer like Ball State University or the Indiana Charter School Board, because he liked the “grassroots” approach.

“We worked very hard to get firm financial footing in place to alleviate any concerns that they might have,” Sutherlin said. “We did everything we could to show that we were serious about this.”

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One area where authorizers play an important role is vetting contracts, leases and other land deals, such as the purchase of the agriculture school’s farm campus. The sale of the property has taken place outside of public view and illustrates how Indiana law could be clearer when it comes to charter school board members and conflicts of interest.

The farmland, made up of 16 parcels, was in danger of foreclosure and was up for auction in September of 2016, according to the Morgan County Assessor’s Office. But before the auction took place, the land was deeded from Kevin Presnell, the previous owner, to Network Venture Funding, a private investment firm where current agriculture school board treasurer John Curtis is a managing partner, county officials and a school spokeswoman said.

Curtis purchased the property as an investment before Sutherlin approached him about using it as a physical campus for students, according to the school spokeswoman who spoke on Curtis’ behalf. School officials told Chalkbeat that Curtis said his company paid about $2.6 million for the land. The school would not send Chalkbeat documents reflecting the purchase price or explaining how it was determined. Presnell could not be reached for comment.

There is no lease yet between Network Venture Funding and the school, but in an email, Curtis said he would ask the firm’s board to approve a $1 rental agreement for the upcoming school year. School officials said that when the school opens later this summer and the board finds a replacement, Curtis will step down as a board member and treasurer.

“This then will eliminate any potential for conflicts,” Curtis said in an email.

Curtis said neither he nor Sutherlin have been paid for any of their work on the school so far and that the school has been able to use the farm rent-free over the past year as it prepares to open. After next year, he said, the school’s board will have to decide what it can afford as far as rent.

Indiana law says that neither board members or prospective board members for traditional schools may have a financial interest in schools they serve, but it’s not clear if those rules apply to charter schools.

Sutherlin said he plans to keep funds provided by the state for students separate from private dollars raised to build and develop the farm. Going forward, though, having private entities involved could make it harder to get a full financial picture of the school.

An experienced authorizer, Ziebarth said, would be able to review property arrangements and raise red flags if necessary.

“It’s not in the best interest of the public to basically authorize a school for something that involves a real estate boon for somebody,” Ziebarth said. “There’s the potential for conflicts of interest for sure.”

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As of now, there is no firm plan for when academic facilities might be built on the farmland nor is there a set schedule for when students can visit the farm. Officials said the trips won’t be mandatory. But Marsh said he thinks visits will begin in September, and the school plans to transport the students from their homes, which could be scattered across the state.

The farm is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office in Morgan County.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The farm is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office.

Now, Marsh and school officials are traveling across Indiana to recruit. After seeing a Facebook ad for the school, Charlo Montandon thought it would be the perfect fit for her grandson, an animated 15-year-old who has a passion for agriculture.

Solomon Montandon said he was excited to find a school where he felt like he belonged. Like other students drawn to virtual charter schools, he didn’t thrive in traditional schools. His grandmother said Solomon has dealt with emotional and anxiety issues stemming from his time in foster care, and he has also been picked on at school for being small.

“He loves farms and he loves farming,” she said. “He’s shown llamas … for four or five years for 4-H and he’s shown goats a couple times. It sounded just like him.”

Indiana Agriculture and Technology School says it can address some of the pitfalls that have plagued online charter schools across the country, though it will be more than a year before scores can show how much students are learning.

Last year, 34 states had 429 full-time online charter schools that enrolled 295,518 students, an increase of 17,000 students from 2015-16, according to a recent report from the National Education Policy Center. In Indiana, the schools enroll about 12,000 students, about 1 percent of all students. But of the five virtual charter schools that were graded by Indiana in 2017, four received Fs, according to the state, and experts wonder if expansion is happening too quickly.

“We saw 6 percent growth in the number of students in virtual schools (across the country),” said Gary Miron, a virtual school researcher at the National Education Policy Center. “It defies common sense.”

Virtual school critics have said it’s not just on schools to improve themselves — the state has work to do. Indiana lawmakers, who have the most power to act and can do so relatively quickly, have so far been loathe to make any changes when it comes to virtual charter schools, despite years of well-documented shortcomings in Indiana and the nation as a whole.

Holcomb has called on the Indiana State Board of Education to study the schools further and consider policy changes, but even he said he doesn’t think the legislature needs to get involved. And lawmakers themselves point to a need for more data on the population of students who attend virtual schools before they feel comfortable stepping in.

At the very least, lawmakers should close the district authorizing loophole, Ziebarth said.

“The governor came out and said he wanted these changes, and everyone else seemed to flinch from it,” he said. “This seems like a piece of low-hanging fruit for them to take on.”

Check out more of Chalkbeat’s online school stories.

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.