More oversight, less growth: How Indiana could turn around its failing online schools

A state committee tasked with probing dismal results at Indiana’s virtual charter schools is recommending a sweeping package of changes, including capping enrollment at the controversial schools and creating a single statewide authorizer to oversee all of them.

A maximum student-teacher ratio for online schools and required orientations for new students were also included in the Indiana State Board of Education committee’s recommendations, which were unveiled Monday and will be sent to the full board next month and, eventually, to lawmakers in time for the legislative session that begins in January.

The committee — created following a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed widespread academic, financial, and operational issues at one of the state’s largest virtual charter schools. — heard months of testimony about the schools’ poor academic performance and what some criticize as poor oversight.

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Its recommendations are significant because Indiana lawmakers have been slow to take any decisive action about virtual charter schools, which receive millions of dollars in state funding and have been expanding quickly in recent years. Some school leaders have also asked for more leniency, not less, in terms of how schools are measured. Indiana has six virtual charter schools, with three opening in the past year alone, which serve almost 12,000 students. But their academic performance raises questions — every online school graded last year received F ratings.

Gordon Hendry, the state board member who chairs the virtual school committee, said it’s about time the state stepped in and ensured tax dollars are being spent wisely.

“Indiana has been one of the best, if not the best, in the nation for its strong charter school laws, but we have done precious little on virtual charter laws,” Hendry said at the committee’s meeting. “By bringing some recommendations to the table, we can start a statewide discussion as to how do we turn this failed system around.”

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Republican Rep. Bob Behning, Indiana House Education Committee chairman, said he would support required orientation and more regulation of authorizers in general, but he wanted more details to fine-tune any possible changes.

Leaders from K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education provider that operates two schools in Indiana, also supported the proposed changes to oversight and onboarding students, but they said they still have questions about policy changes that would curb enrollment or cap student-teacher ratios.

“We hope this would be part of a discussion and it would not be one-size-fits-all,” said Mary Gifford, K12 Inc.’s senior vice president of academic policy and external relations.

Most of the changes would require new laws and regulations or changes to existing laws, and it’s unclear how much support they will receive from lawmakers. The General Assembly’s Republican leadership has not supported making large-scale changes to virtual charter school oversight or implement consequences for poor performance, but Gov. Eric Holcomb, also a Republican, has called for “immediate attention and action.”

Here is a look at some of the recommendations:

Capping enrollment and setting student-teacher ratios

The most dramatic set of recommendations revolves around ensuring virtual charter schools don’t grow rapidly — bringing in more state funding — without showing results.

“This is something that we’ve seen as being a significant problem,” Hendry said. “Many of these schools have ramped up enrollment so fast their staffing has not kept pace.”

Since the schools first opened in Indiana in 2010, there has been no limit on their enrollment. But under the recommendations, new schools couldn’t enroll more than 500 students in their first year.

Once a school hits 250 students, the committee suggested limiting growth to 15 percent each year. If a school could show positive academic results, it could request a waiver of these rules.

It’s a significant change, but it doesn’t account for the student turnover at most virtual schools. It also isn’t clear how it would affect existing schools that are already large and fast-growing — some of which enroll more than 4,000 students, effectively making them among the largest schools in the entire state.

Perhaps most severely, the committee wants to cut off new student enrollment entirely if a school receives an F for four consecutive years. It could not accept new students until it receives at least a C grade from the state. So far, of all the full-time virtual charter schools that have been graded by the state, Connections Academy and Indiana Virtual School have received two F grades; Insight School has received one. Grades for 2018 are expected mid-November.

The committee also recommends the state set a maximum student-to-teacher ratio of 50-to-1 for virtual charter schools serving grades kindergarten through six, and 100-to-1 for schools serving grades seven through 12.

“The ideal would be fewer,” said Cari Whicker, a state board member and educator. “But at least it sets a bar.”

Currently, on average, virtual charter schools have one teacher for every 45 students, compared to one teacher for every 16 students in traditional public schools, according to the National Education Policy Center, which studies virtual education. But some schools far exceed the proposed maximum, such as Indiana Virtual School, which had a ratio of 123-to-1 according to an annual state data report from 2017, though the number has fluctuated and was as high as 222-to-1 in May of that year.

Behning said he needed more details before he could get behind a maximum student-teacher ratio, especially in high schools, where teachers might only have class sizes of about 25, but teach six classes in a day, making them responsible for 150 students — the model at many traditional high schools. Whether the ratio cap deals with class size or total students makes a difference, he said.

Ramping up oversight

The policy changes also aim to add more oversight for online charter schools and the overseers themselves, a frequent complaint of virtual charter critics. Currently, charter schools can be overseen by a university, school district, mayor’s office, or the state charter school board, but there has been confusion around virtual schools and who has the power to ensure they are following the promises set in their charters.

The committee recommends changing state law to create just one entity to authorize virtual schools and phase out current authorizers. And that single authorizer would only be allowed to initially collect up to 1.25 percent of the schools’ state tuition dollars as a oversight fee, a reduction from the current law that allows up to 3 percent. There would, however, be a waiver available so that if the authorizer could prove it needed more money to pay for services to oversee a school, it could be reimbursed for up to 2 percent of a school’s funding amount.

Hendry didn’t clarify whether the single authorizer would be an existing one or a new agency, but the change, he said, would ensure the schools are held accountable and could limit “perverse incentives” for authorizers looking to profit off of the schools they oversee.

There have been concerns, Hendry said, about public school districts that authorize virtual charter schools and don’t appear to use the money solely for authorizing, as required by state law. Whicker and Maryanne McMahon, both committee members and educators in public school districts, supported amping up the oversight rules.

“At this point, money is not being spent on the student,” Whicker said. “Having a centralized authorizer would at least provide an opportunity for better oversight.”

Indiana law doesn’t specifically prohibit or allow districts to oversee statewide virtual schools, but interpretations by state board staff members and lawmakers now say districts were not intended to have that power — which has caused some recently opened schools to scramble to change their models in order to comply.

The committee is also suggesting that lawmakers change state law to make that more clear by stating that only statewide authorizers can oversee online charter schools. Charter school advocates have argued that districts, especially small cash-strapped rural ones, might not have the resources to effectively oversee large charter schools that serve students across the state.

Gifford, however, raised concerns.

“There are states where the role of authorizing virtuals has been thrust onto a single authorizer, and they didn’t want it and so it creates hostile relationships,” Gifford said, adding that different authorizers can bring different skills to the table. A university, for example, can bring experience in instruction and staffing, she said. K12 Inc.’s Indiana schools are overseen by Ball State University.

Ensuring students are prepared

The committee also suggests that lawmakers change state enrollment law to require students and the adults who are in charge of their learning at home complete a virtual education orientation before they can attend a virtual charter school.

Because learning full time in a virtual charter school can be vastly different from learning in a typical school environment, both virtual charter school leaders and national charter school advocates have said giving students and parents more information before they enroll is critical to making sure they are successful.

Read: A new idea for fixing Indiana’s virtual charter schools: Let them choose their students

Too often students and parents can enroll without understanding how virtual schools work or the commitment required to learning independently, they said.

“The switch from traditional to online, there’s a big learning curve,” said Jeff Kwitowski, K12 Inc.’s senior vice president of public affairs and policy communications.

Changing state enrollment law — especially for public schools — isn’t a light lift. Typically, there are very few situations in which a public school would be allowed to turn students away. If lawmakers make the recommended change, a virtual charter school, which is a public school, would be allowed to turn away a student who did not complete the orientation process.

Michael Barbour, a researcher and professor from Touro University in California who has written extensively on virtual education, said this change in particular makes him worry that schools will get too much control to choose students who are most likely to succeed, a process known as “creaming” or “skimming.”

“This is going to be used for the online programs to essentially just take the students that they want, and not the students that necessarily want them,” Barbour said.

What’s next?

There could be more changes ahead. The committee didn’t tackle a few areas that have been discussed in other states, such as funding virtual charter schools based on the courses students complete rather than enrollment, and creating a separate grading system for virtual schools because of their student populations.

Virtual schools say their students frequently come in behind grade level and that many face other challenges, such as homelessness and high mobility, which can make it difficult for the schools to earn high graduation rates and test scores.

Hendry said those are still issues that state officials need time to research, and he said they could be good topics for a legislative study committee to dig into further. Behning said he, too, is interested in further study of shared accountability between virtual schools that receive students and the schools they previously attended.

Hendry doesn’t anticipate that the state board or lawmakers will back all of the committee’s recommendations, but he said aggressive changes are needed for schools to improve.

“We’re not going to tackle this problem by taking little, small incremental changes year over year,” Hendry said. “We really have to pull in the ranks and address this head-on.”