Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

One of the most dramatic proposals to come out of a months-long state review of Indiana’s online charter schools would strip one school district of its ability to oversee two schools.

The Daleville public school district, which oversees Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, would be out of the charter school authorizing business if a sweeping set of policy proposals recently approved by the Indiana State Board of Education moves forward.

While most of the proposals would apply to any virtual charter school in the state, some were clearly written with Daleville and its schools — which are among the lowest performing —  in mind. Gordon Hendry, the state board of education member whose committee drafted the recommendations, said that was no accident — the small rural district, he said, has no business overseeing schools.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Hendry said.

One of the recommendations would clarify state law so public school districts would no longer be able to oversee virtual charter schools. Instead, only statewide authorizers, such as universities and the Indiana Charter School Board, would be permitted to monitor online schools.

Previously, 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 raised concerns for some researchers and charter school advocates who say districts, especially small ones, might not have the capacity to oversee schools that could serve thousands of students across the state.

Daleville, which has 961 students in its traditional schools, is the only public district in Indiana that authorizes full-time virtual charter schools. As an authorizer of two schools with more than 6,000 students, Daleville also received $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 some state education leaders and charter school advocates balked at the size of the fee Daleville collected.

Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative-leaning Fordham Foundation, said he worried district authorizers could be incentivized to keep low-performing schools open.

“It’s sort of obvious on its face that you’ve got some perverse incentives for an authorizer like that to allow the school to expand and continue operating because of the massive amount of revenue that it can generate,” Petrilli said. He added that there are “real questions about whether that kind of authorizer is going to have the capacity as well as the will to hold a school like that accountable.”

Daleville officials did not return requests for comment, but at the state board’s most recent meeting, where the proposals were approved, IVS and IVPA Superintendent Percy Clark opposed the move.

“I reject the urgency of tampering with the authorizer model,” Clark said, calling most of the recommendations a “band-aid approach that ignore the root cause of virtual schools’ challenges.”

All of the state board of education members supported the provision, but another proposal that would have required a single authorizer for all of Indiana’s online charter schools did not win the board’s approval.

Virtual school leaders say their poor performance occurs because their students are more likely to switch schools frequently and be behind their peers academically, as well as to face other challenges to learning like social-emotional issues or bullying. But traditional public school advocates say their students, too, deal with issues such as trauma, bullying, and frequent school transfers that can disrupt learning.

Without lawmakers changing the law, Hendry said the state board would be very limited to act on its own to change authorizer policy. But he said he thought there was plenty of momentum heading into the legislative session in January, sentiments Gov. Eric Holcomb echoed last week. That would be a deviation from years past, when lawmakers failed to consider several bills that proposed to regulate online charter school.

“Given the seriousness of these issues, it would be hard for me to think that the legislature would take a pass on enacting virtual charter school legislation in 2019,” Hendry said.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said he couldn’t say whether Daleville has fulfilled its responsibilities as a virtual charter school authorizer, but he did say that he thought state law needed to change so that districts cannot oversee schools in the future.

“I’ve been very clear to them, when your contract is up, you will not be able to reauthorize,” Behning said. “If an authorizer wants to keep that school open, it will have to go to a statewide authorizer.”

Daleville renewed its five-year charter contract with Indiana Virtual School in 2015. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy opened in 2017 with Daleville as its authorizer, but it’s unclear when its contract officially began or how long it extends. Multiple requests to Daleville for the school’s charter and other documents were not returned.

For Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation, and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, the suggested policy changes wouldn’t just alter how the schools report information or give orientation to students — they would fundamentally change how the schools run and are monitored.

Aside from the authorizing changes, the recommendations would also mandate specific teacher-student ratios for virtual schools, which are lower than recent ratios the schools have reported, and allow the state board to halt enrollment at a virtual school if it goes four years with failing grades.

When it comes to the schools being allowed to stay open, officials were less resolute. Indiana Virtual School received its third F grade from the state this year. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy did not receive a grade for 2018 because too few students took state tests, but of the students who did test, a handful passed both English and math exams.

Hendry said that while the schools’ academic performance “seriously concerned” him, it wasn’t for him to say whether the school should stay open or close — that’s for the full board to decide, if and when it should need to. Typically, the state board doesn’t intervene in low-performing schools until they have received four consecutive F grades.

“It would come to us like the others have,” Hendry said. “But that’s why we’re asking for more authority.”

Holcomb, too, has said that schools with such low performance should not be allowed to remain open, comments he reiterated last week.

“We don’t want bad apples to spoil the bunch,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat. “This is a viable option for many … but they have to be able to perform and not linger if they’re not performing.”

Additionally, much of the research on how well virtual schools educate students — some from from well-respected institutions such Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes — show students learn far less at virtual schools than their peers elsewhere.

Other reviews led by virtual learning companies show more favorable results, partially, the companies say, because their data specifically takes into account how frequently virtual school students move between schools. But the results of these studies have been more controversial.

Going into next year, Hendry said he didn’t yet know which lawmakers might be filing bills on the recommendations. Behning said he planned to file a bill on a proposal to require orientations for virtual school students before they enroll.