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

A tiny Indiana district is banking on virtual education to survive. But at what cost?

PHOTO: Hero Images
Young woman working at laptop.

In one year, a tiny rural Indiana school district more than tripled its enrollment, growing to nearly 1,000 students. But more than 800 of those students learn exclusively through a virtual education program — and despite fully funding it, the state has no way to know how well it’s doing.

State officials, researchers and the public can’t easily determine if students are learning because Union Schools’ virtual program and others like it are not distinct schools. Their student performance, enrollment, teaching staffs, and other data are rolled into existing brick-and-mortar schools.

Indiana lawmakers are starting to pay attention to the rapid growth in Union and realizing that programs like these could come at considerable cost. Unexpected growth in public schools is throwing off school funding estimates. Although virtual education programs are only one contributing factor, they are part of a larger shortfall creating a stir during this year’s legislative session.

There’s no way of tracking exactly where these virtual programs exist, how much they cost, or how students are performing.

As a result, lawmakers are taking steps to learn more about districts that pursue in-house virtual education programs and how pervasive they are across the state. District-run programs like the one at Union have operated largely unnoticed, even as online charter schools have shown dismal academic results and attracted scandal in Indiana and across the country.

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

Despite that, districts are using online learning to strategically expand their offerings — and as a profit stream.

“That’s where we’ve seen the greatest growth in K-12 online learning, is with the district-based programs,” said Michael Barbour, a researcher and professor from Touro University in California. “Districts have been losing (students) to these cyber charter schools for so long that they essentially want to develop an in-house version.”

Superintendent Allen Hayne said Union Rockets Virtual Academy has given his students more opportunities for learning. Even though Union is a tiny rural district about 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the program attracts students from more than 70 counties across the state. The boost in students has kept the district afloat financially as residential enrollment has waned, a trend for rural districts across the state.

Union operates its program with K12 Inc., one of the largest virtual education providers in the country. K12 also operates three Hoosier Academies charter schools, one of which is set to close in June.

Union’s growth came as a surprise to state lawmakers — and it was concerning enough that they’re crafting legislation that would require schools to submit yearly reports about their in-district virtual programs.

Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, last week amended Senate Bill 189, focused on school funding, to add in requirements for district-based virtual programs. By October, districts with these programs would have to report virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Brown said. “We need some data before you can necessarily take an analysis of what you think should happen in the future.”

The lack of distinct data on in-house virtual programs, Barbour said, means there’s almost no evidence that shows whether they are working.

“We have no easy way of discerning how the kids are doing compared to other online programs or compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts because they are masked by everybody else,” Barbour said.

What we know about virtual education comes from research on virtual charter schools. On the whole, statewide virtual charter schools have shown poor student achievement: Every full-time Indiana online charter school received an F from the state in 2017.

Read: Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’

But there are ways for districts to be more transparent. They can establish a separate school, which would allow their results to stand on their own.

Wayne Township has long had a separate, full-time online school, which primarily serves students who live within an hour of the district. Achieve Virtual Education Academy has existed in some form since 1999, starting as a distance-learning program. This year, the school enrolled 220 students, and in 2017, it was rated a D.

All of Achieve’s state data — test scores, graduation rate, enrollment, teacher evaluations — are available through Indiana’s state data website.

It’s still too early for Union to know how its virtual students are doing — because they just started, they haven’t tested yet. But the program has been popular, Hayne said. He gets phone calls just about every day from parents asking to enroll their students, and more than 200 students are on a waiting list.

Part of the reason Union pursued a virtual program was financial. The district needed to attract more students, and this was an easy way that also allowed them to expand course offerings for students living and attending school within the district.

The financial incentive for creating a district-run virtual program instead of becoming a charter school authorizer is appealing — and it offers the district more control.

First, authorizers can only collect up to 3 percent in fees from schools they oversee. Union’s contract with K12 Inc. nets them 5 percent. And unlike in online charter schools, virtual students in district programs get 100 percent of the state funding that traditional schools receive. Virtual charter schools get only 90 percent.

Overall, Hayne said Union ends up with about a few hundred thousand dollars.

“It kind of did a stop-gap measure for us. We’re not rolling in the money, to say the least,” Hayne said. “It kind of made us break even within our budget.”

Union’s strategy isn’t the only way to run a virtual program. Decatur Township, on the southwest side of Indianapolis, intentionally keeps its program small and mostly local, enrolling students from within 25 miles of district boundaries.

Decatur Township’s “MyLearning Virtual” program has been around for almost two years and currently enrolls 57 students, said assistant superintendent Nate Davis.

“We really don’t have any plans for major growth,” Davis said. “What we really want to do is use it … for a specific niche population within our school community that needs an alternative to a brick-and-mortar option.”

But as with Union, information about Decatur’s virtual enrollment size or student achievement isn’t distinct and isn’t available to the public.

That’s where Brown’s amendment would come in.

Still, the bill is currently in limbo. It’s one of two school funding bills lawmakers are negotiating during these last couple of weeks of session. It’s unclear at this point which version will move ahead. The virtual education issue didn’t receive much debate.

Chalkbeat’s investigation into Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online charter school that spent little of its state dollars on teachers and instruction, has spurred some interest from lawmakers in virtual education, but their attempts to make change so far have failed. Three other bills proposed this year that would have tightened rules for charter school authorizers and limited growth based on test scores were never given a hearing.

The financial incentives from the state, both for IVS and district-based virtual programs, means it’s likely that virtual education will continue to grow in Indiana.

Brown’s amendment could bring the state information about growth, but it wouldn’t do much to inform the debate about whether full-time virtual education is good for students. Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who also wants the state to look more closely at virtual schools and ratchet up consequences for low graduation rate, said the status quo isn’t enough.

“It is imperative that we have some transparency when it comes to virtual education,” Porter said. “Hopefully this summer, or next year when we do the budget … we’ll look at it in a hard way.”

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

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

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”