what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”



Indiana online schools

Facing state scrutiny, Indiana charter school steps back from virtual plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Agriculture and Technology School's farm campus is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office in Morgan County.

An Indiana charter school is backing off its unconventional plan to open a statewide virtual school with a farm campus following scrutiny from state officials over its oversight model.

In May, a Chalkbeat investigation examined concerns about whether Indiana Agriculture and Technology School’s plan to be overseen by a school district exploited a loophole in state law.

Following the investigation, the Indiana State Board of Education told Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools in an email exchange obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request that only the state charter board or a university could authorize a statewide virtual charter school.

Now, a month before it is set to open, the school says it will instead incorporate more in-person learning so it can launch as a brick-and-mortar charter school, not a virtual school.

“After examining our program it was clear to all parties that we do not meet the technical definition of a virtual school,” said Allan Sutherlin, the school’s founder and board president, in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Sutherlin did not immediately respond to questions about how students recruited from across the state will participate in in-person lessons and access the farm campus.

When asked about the oversight issue in March, state board officials told Chalkbeat that they didn’t have the authority to review charter contracts. Indiana law doesn’t specifically prohibit or allow districts to oversee statewide virtual schools, but lawmakers say districts were not intended to have that power.

But in a May 31 letter, Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board, told the school district to “address this issue as quickly as possible as failure to do so violates Indiana law.”

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Timothy Edsell contended the district was in compliance with the law, disputing the state board’s interpretation.

He said the district is allowed to authorize the school because the school leases land within the district’s boundaries. He also argued that the portion of state law that addresses who can authorize virtual charter schools isn’t restrictive — it says virtual charters “may” apply with a statewide authorizer, Edsell said, not that they “shall” or “must.”

“There is legal authority to support our collective actions and all legal requirements have been followed,” Edsell wrote in a follow-up letter to state board staff.

But then, on June 22, the agriculture school changed course. Despite originally applying for its charter as a “statewide virtual school,” it informed the state that the school would instead be opening as a brick-and-mortar charter school with a so-called “blended-learning” model.

The school plans to mix online instruction and in-person visits to regional sites and the school’s farm campus in southern Indiana, according to documents Marsh provided to the state. That will include weekly in-person learning sessions at the farm campus or elsewhere, monthly farm campus visits, dual credit opportunities with the Central 9 Career Center and Ivy Tech Community College, and internships and work-based learning with local partners.

The move was a significant change from the school’s original plans. Although school officials emphasized hands-on experiences students would receive, they told Chalkbeat earlier this year that the farm visits weren’t mandatory and would be occasional. Through social media marketing, the school has advertised itself for months as a “real virtual school.”

A Facebook ad for Indiana Agriculture and Technology School from July 2.

And in March, Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director, confirmed with the Indiana Department of Education that the school was virtual.

Even with the change in plans, the school says 49 percent of a student’s schooling will occur online. The state defines a virtual charter school as providing more than 50 percent of its instruction online.

As a traditional charter school, the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is also now entitled to an increase in state funding — full state tuition support instead of the 90 percent virtual charter schools receive. The school has so far enrolled about 100 students.

It’s unclear why the school decided to make the change to blended-learning when it did. But on June 29, after the school confirmed its new model with the state, Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, told district superintendent Edsell that the school’s charter would have been invalid if it had remained a virtual school.

Sutherlin and Marsh declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

In addressing the school’s new model, Schultz wrote that the district “is responsible for ensuring that every charter school it authorizes is complying with all applicable federal and state laws.”

Schultz wrote that the state board “has no mechanism to independently verify” that the school is operating according to its new plan. The Indiana Department of Education also does not monitor whether charter schools follow rules set by their authorizers or the state, a spokeswoman said.

State Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman, said the state board’s review showed “due diligence.” He also said the law would likely have to be clarified.

“I was concerned and made it very clear that I thought a local school corporation could not authorize a statewide virtual (school), so I’m glad that they’re now in compliance,” Behning said. “My guess is there will be changes to our virtual charter law anyway in terms of some different parameters we might put in, so we’ll hopefully clean that up at the same time.”

Virtual charter schools have drawn scrutiny in both Indiana and Washington, D.C. A state board committee met for the first time last month to explore changes that could be made to state law to improve the schools, which have records of poor academic performance in Indiana. Additionally, lawmakers at a Congressional committee hearing later that same week raised questions about the schools.

Find more coverage of Indiana’s 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.