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.

Indiana online schools

Should Indiana cut schools slack when kids move a lot? Some online school leaders say yes.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Indiana Connections Academy
A student at Indiana Connections Academy completes schoolwork.

Melissa Brown knows her online charter school served — for some length of time — about 6,000 students last year.

Brown, executive director of Indiana Connections Academy, also knows that the state only gave the school enough money for 4,651, the number of students who started the school year there. And she knows about a quarter of the students who finished out last year at Connections won’t be coming back in the fall.

The mobility of students at Brown’s school is typical of many online schools, where students can learn from anywhere without direct supervision. That makes it easier to enroll, drop out, and disengage. And the consequences are real: It’s challenging to educate students who don’t stay long enough to learn, and it’s difficult for the school to garner a positive rating from the state when those same students score poorly on state tests, or don’t take them at all.

“I am absolutely for being held accountable, and I will be as transparent about our data as I need to be because I want help in making our model better,” Brown said. “But I don’t think you can ignore the mobility piece when it comes to accountability.”

Brown plans to explain the challenge mobility presents to state policymakers Wednesday as part of the second meeting of a state committee that aims to review virtual charter school laws and regulations. The committee — formed by the Indiana State Board of Education following calls from Gov. Eric Holcomb and lawmakers to address the schools’ poor performance and oversight — is expected to hear presentations from the Indiana’s online charter school operators and the groups that oversee them. This meeting will look at virtual charter schools’ accountability, enrollment, and withdrawal processes.

Read: 4 takeaways from Indiana’s first review of its troubled virtual charter schools

Virtual charter schools are not alone in their struggle to educate students they might not be funded for. And they’re also not the only schools that are penalized in state letter grades because of students transferring, critics point out. But online charter school leaders do say their student mobility rates outpace those of other public schools and add an additional burden.

In 2017, Indiana reported that 40.7 percent of Connections Academy students changed schools sometime during the year. At Indiana Virtual School, which Chalkbeat investigated last year, 46 percent did. And at the now-closed Hoosier Academy Virtual, the mobility rate was 36 percent. According to a report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, students stay in virtual schools for two years on average.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, by comparison, state data shows mobility between schools was 7.6 percent that year, and 17.5 percent between IPS and other school districts. In suburban Carmel and rural Batesville schools, the rates for both kinds of mobility were below 4 percent.

Out of all the state’s virtual charter schools, Connections has posted the highest test passing rates, test improvement rates, and has the largest share of its students graduating. But for most of those metrics, the school still falls below state averages. The school received an F from the state in 2016 and 2017.

That’s frustrating to Brown, who has seen her students improve and her staff recognized by state and national counseling organizations. Compared to other online charter schools in the state, Connections Academy has more teachers per student, a metric cited by researchers as a way to improve student learning at virtual schools.

The school also received a favorable review from AdvancED, a national nonprofit that ensures schools meet certain standards and best practices. If the school is meeting these criteria, she wonders, why are they performing so poorly on the state’s rating?

“We had these site-reviewers who really dug deeply into our daily practice and operational framework and basically said this is not a failing school,” Brown said. “There’s something wrong in terms of how we’re measuring our kids when we’re doing everything we can and we’re still coming up short.”

Lawmakers have tried to adjust Indiana’s accountability law in the past to account for schools and districts with high student mobility, but the efforts haven’t yet gained traction. There’s debate about whether schools should get a break if they have more transfers and if those policy changes could end up making highly mobile students invisible to the state’s grading system altogether.

Currently, Indiana schools, with the exception of adult high schools, get letter grades based on the same formula that relies mainly on how many students pass state tests, how much they improve each year, and whether they graduate.

Virtual schools gained a little flexibility in 2017 when the Indiana legislature approved a bill allowing them to dismiss students who showed low attendance and poor participation.

Brown testified in favor of the law, and she said it’s been a good tool to let families know what’s at stake before they commit to a virtual school that might not work for them. Like traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools, online charter schools are required to accept any student who wants to enroll.

“We’re convenient for a lot of families that need a flexible learning environment, but we can’t just be a place where a kid lands because he or she doesn’t want to go to a physical classroom or because they think they just hide and do nothing,” Brown said. “That’s not how we operate here.”

The online charter school committee is set to meet at 1 p.m., Wednesday, at Indiana Government Center South.