Indiana online schools

‘How long do we let them fail’? Indiana committee begins review of virtual charter school rules

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images
The state board committee is expected to make recommendations to lawmakers and the rest of the board for adjusting virtual school rules.

As a group of state officials convene for the first time Tuesday to examine virtual charter schools, two prominent Indiana Republican lawmakers are calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of the schools.

“Whatever we’re doing is not working, because I don’t see where they’re improving,” said Ryan Mishler, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding, “With a virtual, if you’re failing so many years in a row, maybe we need to look at how long do we let them fail before we say you can’t operate.”

Mishler and House education chair Bob Behning told Chalkbeat that the oversight of virtual charter schools needs to be addressed, whether through changes to state law or action by the Indiana State Board of Education.

Indiana will have seven virtual charter schools at the start of the next school year, with three opening in the past year alone and one shutting down amid chronic bad grades. But their academic performance raises questions — four of the five schools graded by the state last year received F ratings.

Even for students who need a more flexible alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Mishler said, “If they’re not doing well, if they’re not graduating, how good is it for them?”

The committee, made up of members of the state board of education, are expected to provide recommendations for regulating the fast-growing sector of virtual charter schools. The formation of the committee comes after a Chalkbeat investigation exposed how Indiana Virtual School has collected tens of millions in state funding — while profiting a company that at the time was led by the school’s founder and board president — but hired very few teachers and graduated about 6 percent of students.

Another Chalkbeat investigation recently highlighted the unusual circumstances surrounding the opening of Indiana’s newest virtual charter school. An investment firm owned by the co-founder and school board treasurer of the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School purchased property that the school will eventually pay rent to use as a farm for hands-on learning. After questions from Chalkbeat about the possible conflict of interest, the co-founder said he would be stepping down from the board when the school opens next month.

“When you hear things like that, it does throw up a red flag,” Mishler said. “I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong, but I do think it’s something we need to look at.”

Chalkbeat has also examined how some statewide online charter schools have used what some consider a loophole in state law in order to open. Instead of looking to well-known authorizing agencies, some virtual charter schools are partnering with school districts that are inexperienced in charter oversight but set to gain financially from the arrangement.

This year, lawmakers hampered efforts to make changes to laws governing virtual charter schools. Three bills that would have put more restrictions on charter school authorizers were killed during last year’s legislative session. And none of the bills directly dealt with virtual schools.

State board committee chair Gordon Hendry said he and board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon will start on Tuesday with a broad overview of virtual school policies, as well as a review of data on school performance and operations.

“This isn’t an issue where we’re talking about 50 students at a particular school,” Hendry said. “We’re talking about thousands of students.”

Neither Hendry nor the other committee members said they had a strong sense of how much authority the state board has to make changes in this policy area, but they hoped to be able to suggest changes in time for next year’s legislative session.

“I know that we have some authority that’s been delegated under state law, but really I’m viewing this from a more global perspective,” Hendry said. “We want to help better inform state lawmakers as to what the current landscape is and really help them arrive at some potential new legislation that helps improve the education provided by Indiana virtual charter schools.”

Behning said the quality of online education in general — not just virtual charter schools — is a national problem.

“I think we have to look at virtual education as a whole — we can’t just say, well, it’s virtual charters,” he said. “If we do anything, we need to be comprehensive in the way we look at it.”

Behning had suggestions for some areas where improvements could be made to online education. He said to address online charter school performance, the state should explore how schools can ensure students are participating. In 2017, he authored a law that requires online charter schools to develop an “engagement policy” that outlines how students should be working. Under the policies, schools can expel students if they do not meet participation requirements.

But aside from that provision, there is little guidance for how virtual schools should track attendance, which schools report themselves to the state — a student could be counted present if they are enrolled in a course but never do any work.

“Technology is probably moving faster sometimes than we are moving in terms of policy and how we’re addressing that,” Behning said. “But I think there is urgency, because anytime a student doesn’t have an opportunity to be successful, that’s a problem.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online 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

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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?”