This bill was meant to check virtual schools. Now, lawmakers are watering it down again

Just weeks before the end of the legislative session, some of the stricter regulations on virtual charter schools were removed from a bill that lawmakers promised would rein in the controversial schools.

House education committee members voted 9-0 Monday to amend a Senate bill, further watering it down while folding in measures from a similar bill that would give the schools more power to choose their students.

The lawmakers removed language prohibiting virtual charter schools from transferring students between schools in the same network in the same school year — a provision that would have restricted student churn and possibly increased transparency around two of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, which now are currently engulfed in scandal.

The bill already didn’t include many of the stronger measures proposed by the state board of education and national school choice advocates that would slow down growth and reduce financial incentives for schools and authorizers, such as limiting fees for authorizers, capping enrollment, or setting maximum student-to-teacher ratios.

Rep. Tonya Pfaff, a Democrat from Terre Haute, said the bill didn’t go far enough.

“I think it’s a very small first step to solving a really large problem,” said Pfaff, whose Democratic colleague, Sen. Eddie Melton, had a harsher bill that was never heard in committee. “There needs to be a lot more limitations in place moving forward.”

The provision preventing students from transferring between schools run by the same network might have revealed problems earlier at Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. Daleville, a small rural district northeast of Indianapolis, began the process of revoking their charters earlier this year after the data showed many of its students weren’t signed up for or didn’t complete classes.

Because so many students transferred at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy last year, it meant the school did not get a state grade because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough. Despite being responsible for more than 6,000 students last year, the state is missing a key metric designed to hold the school accountable. Indiana Virtual School received its third F from the state last year.

Read: Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee said he removed the language because Daleville took action against the schools. If the district’s board revokes the charters, it’s likely the schools could close.

The amended bill, which will head next to the full House, still includes some regulations. In particular, it would put in place some changes that Republican legislative leaders have lauded for encouraging virtual schools to better engage students learning in a remote environment, including making orientation mandatory before enrollment and removing students who have racked up at least 10 unexcused absences.

“It’s taking a major step forward,” Behning said.

Virtual school leaders, though, have said that taking students off their rolls after 10 days is too harsh. Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, said she supports efforts lawmakers have taken to give virtual schools flexibility to remove students who remain inactive for long periods of time, but her school has a process for checking on inactive students that could last weeks.

“There are times we have a kid at more than 10 days absent, and we didn’t want to dump them,” Brown told Chalkbeat last week. “We think in many cases, we can help that kid.”

When a student is removed, it’s unclear who takes responsibility for their education.

Also, the bill keeps language that would change state law to prohibit school districts, such as Daleville, from being virtual charter school authorizers. Other changes were made to the bill Monday, including:

  • Mandatory orientations wouldn’t begin until the 2020-21 school year.
  • If virtual schools are found to enroll students who are not Indiana residents, the schools must pay back their state funding to the education department.
  • Virtual schools must include how they measure attendance in annual reports to the state.
  • Students who leave any public school — virtual or traditional — to be homeschooled would count as dropouts under the school’s graduation rate. Behning said he thinks schools abuse this option and those students, who might be more difficult to educate, end up in virtual schools.