bills

Two Indiana Senate bills would tighten up rules for charter school oversight

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Both of these bills are coming from lawmakers who are part of the Senate Education Committee.

Two Indiana senators — a Republican and a Democrat — are calling for the state to reform how charter schools are overseen.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, an Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat also on the committee, have each proposed a bill to ensure charter school authorizers cannot open new schools or renew charters without evidence that students are learning.

The bills come two months after a Chalkbeat investigation revealed that while the small Daleville Community School District charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has appeared to follow state law, it isn’t necessarily meeting the needs of the school’s thousands of students.

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

The district was on track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year overseeing Indiana Virtual, which over its six-year lifespan has earned two F-grades and, in 2016, managed to muster only single-digit graduation rates. The school continues to bring in millions of state dollars for its students, and in September, opened up a second school, also chartered by Daleville.

Kruse’s Senate Bill 350 says an authorizer cannot offer a contract, or charter, to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically. Organizers are nonprofits that run charter schools. They’d have to provide evidence that could include test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, increased numbers of students taking advanced classes or earning honors diplomas.

The bill would require the Indiana Department of Education to create rules by Nov. 1 to prevent charter school organizers from committing financial or enrollment “fraud, waste and abuse.” Schools would also have to submit an annual report that includes audits, the most recent enrollment count, and a list of employee salaries.

Currently, Indiana authorizers — which include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. This bill would empower the state board to more closely scrutinize and take action regarding charter schools and authorizers.

If the department finds the school was in violation, the department would be required to tell the organizer and recommend that the state board do one of the following:

  • Require the school’s authorizer to revoke its charter,
  • Withhold funding from the school, or
  • Require the school to take action to remedy its problems.

Stoops’ Senate Bill 315 goes even further by placing more restrictions on authorizers that are school districts or universities. He said he wasn’t aware that Kruse was offering a bill on the same topic, but that he looks forward to talking with him about it. He’s worked unsuccessfully before to regulate authorizing, but new information about online charter schools has spurred him to address it again this year.

“Charter schools are a little out of control,” Stoops said. “They continue to take students even when they fail, and the whole issue of how authorizers get a cut of their funding, so there’s a lot of incentive for authorizers to create these new schools.”

The bill removes the 2015 grandfathering provision that let existing authorizers avoid screening by the Indiana State Board of Education before they were allowed to open charter schools. Under the bill, these authorizers must now be screened before they can renew existing charters or authorize new schools.

The bill does not change the fact that the state board does not screen school districts, such as Daleville, but instead requires them to register as authorizers, and they are automatically approved.

Stoops also included language in the bill that would give charter school authorizers stricter rules around what state grades are needed to open or renew schools. The bill says that an authorizer may not sponsor a charter school if that school’s organizer already runs a school in Indiana that has received a D or F grade for two consecutive years.

Read: In danger of closure, virtual charter surprises state board by transferring students to sister school

Like in the state’s voucher law, grades would be factored into whether charter schools can enroll new students under Stoops’ plan.

Starting July 1, a charter school that earns a D or F for two consecutive years cannot accept new students for one year. If the school earns a third D or F, the school may not accept new students until it earns a C-grade or better for two consecutive years. If a school earns an F grade for three consecutive years, it cannot enroll new students until it has received a C-grade or better for three consecutive years.

The bill also would eliminate the fees all authorizers can collect for overseeing schools starting in July. Now, authorizers can get up to 3 percent of a charter school’s state funding.

Although these provisions don’t apply to all authorizers, David Harris, executive director for The Mind Trust, said he worries aspects of both bills infringe on the autonomy that can also make charter schools successful. The Mind Trust works closely with Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office on supporting mayor-sponsored charter schools in Indianapolis.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” Harris said.

This early in the session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get. Committee chairs like Kruse tend to advance bills they author, but Stoops’ bill faces another hurdle: Democrats are in the vast minority in the General Assembly, and it’s the majority party that has the discretion to say what merits discussion. That said, Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has already committed to working with the state board to look into virtual schools.

Ultimately, Stoops said that the track records and poor performance of some charter schools and online schools speak for themselves, and he thinks it’s causing policymakers to take a second look at how to regulate them.

“How do they get away with it?” Stoops said. “I think that’s definitely worth dealing with.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Ball State could take over Muncie schools. Here’s their track record overseeing charter schools.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ball State University oversees all three Hoosier Academies schools.

A new proposal out of the Indiana House would let Ball State University take control of the financially distressed Muncie public school district through an appointed seven-member board.

House Bill 1315, parts of which also apply to the Gary school district, was heard in a House committee on Wednesday, where the amendment on Muncie was introduced. The proposal comes about nine months after lawmakers approved a bill that gave financial control of Muncie schools to the state, and just a month after the state took full control of Muncie’s academics as well.

The move is unusual — the state has never before given an entire school district to a university to run. But it isn’t out of left field. Ball State was one of the first groups in the state to oversee charter schools, and as House Speaker Brian Bosma pointed out, Ball State is also a college with a large teaching program that has two laboratory high schools in Indiana.

“I don’t know if it will be a trend,” Bosma said. “Ball State has a long history of education involvement … I’m very comfortable with Ball State’s ability to do something like that. It’s up to those working on the legislation to see if it’s a good idea or not.”

But the university doesn’t have a stellar track record overseeing charter schools. In 2017, about half of its schools were rated D or F. Only one, the Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy, received an A rating in the 2016-17 school year.

As of 2017, more than 17,000 students were attending 27 Ball State-monitored charter schools — 11 in Gary, eight in Central Indiana, five in the southern part of the state, and four statewide virtual schools. Ball State has revoked 10 charters in the past several years.

Recently, the university came under intense scrutiny from the Indiana State Board of Education for one of the schools it’s responsible for, Hoosier Academy Virtual, one of the state’s largest online charter schools. The school was required to have a hearing with the state board for the first time in 2015 for four years of F-grades, and after multiple state board hearings — and two more F grades — the board decided not to close the school. Instead, it capped enrollment and reduced Ball State’s authorizing fees.

But in September, the school announced it would close in June because it was not confident Ball State would renew its charter.

On Wednesday, Ball State officials said they were re-evaluating the quality and processes related to their charter school oversight.

Here are the most recent grades for the rest of the charter schools Ball State oversees, as well as the counties they are in and the years they opened. Schools without grades either have not been open long enough to receive them or still have grades being reviewed by the state board of education:

School 2016-17 grade
Indiana Connections Career Academy 2017 (Virtual)
Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy 2008 (Grant) A
The Bloomington Project School 2009 (Monroe) B
Discovery Charter School 2010 (Porter) B
Gary Middle College 2012 (Lake) B
Mays Community Academy 2015 (Rush) B
Renaissance Academy 2007 (La Porte) B
Rock Creek Community Academy 2010 (Clark) B
Anderson Preparatory Academy 2008 (Madison) C
Canaan Community Academy 2012 (Jefferson) C
Community Montessori 2002 (Floyd) C
Gary Lighthouse Charter School 2005 (Lake) C
Geist Montessori Academy 2006 (Hancock) C
Rural Community Academy 2004 (Sullivan) C
21st Century Charter School at Gary 2005 (Lake) D
East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School 2006 (Lake) D
East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy 2005 (Lake) D
Hoosier Academy – Indianapolis 2008 (Marion) D
Inspire Academy 2013 (Delaware) D
Aspire Charter Academy 2008 (Lake) F
Hoosier Academies Virtual Charter School 2012 (Virtual) F
Indiana Connections Academy 2012 (Virtual) F
Insight School of Indiana 2016 (Virtual) F
Neighbor’s New Vista High School 2012 (Porter) F
Options Charter School – Carmel 2004 (Hamilton) F
Options Charter School – Noblesville 2006 (Hamilton) F
Xavier School of Excellence 2009 (St. Joseph) F

Indiana is getting into district takeover at a time when state education officials have shied away from taking such drastic steps to help schools improve. Several schools were taken over by the state and turned over to charter operators in 2012, but since then, Indiana has more frequently opted to partner with schools to make change, such as  the “transformation zone” and innovation school models in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Interestingly, neither the Indiana Department of Education nor State Board of Education play major roles in district takeover. The amendment includes provisions that the district make reports to the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which handles school districts and other state entities in financial trouble, and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

Muncie was originally identified as needing the state’s involvement after taking on $18 million in debt and mismanaging money from a school bond. In the past few years it has also lost students, which means losing valuable contributions from the state. After last year’s bill passed, the district formed plans to improve finances, which included closing schools, but the district is not financially clear yet.

If the trustees at Ball State agree to take control of the district, they would form a board consisting of members appointed by Ball State, Muncie’s mayor, and the Muncie city council. The amendment says the school district must adopt “academically innovative strategies,” frees the district from certain regulations, and requires them to hold elections for new union representation.

“The future of Muncie is dependent on the future of our public schools,” said Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns. “We hope … to develop programs to sustain and improve the academic quality so students do not choose to leave Muncie public schools.”

Mearns and other Ball State officials said this set-up is better than having an outside emergency manager running the district because Ball State has ties to Muncie and the community. But some lawmakers from the Muncie area were surprised they had only just heard of this plan. Rep. Sue Errington, a Democrat from Muncie, said that the lack of open discussion is frustrating.

“It makes us feel that we aren’t being part of the solution, that it’s a solution being put upon us,” Errington said. “I hope we will find a little more two-way street than what it’s been so far.”

The bill would also allow the district’s emergency manager to fire teachers to reduce expenses and creates a system to identify districts with fiscal problems early. The system would bring aggressive consequences — if a district is identified on the fiscal watch list for four consecutive years, the district’s superintendent could have their license revoked or suspended by the appeal board.

The bill and its amendment are not yet scheduled for a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Indiana online schools

Indiana Virtual School has the lowest graduation rate of any public school in the state

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

For the second year in a row, Indiana Virtual School graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state.

In 2017, 6.5 percent of students graduated — 64 students out of 985. Of the schools the state provided data for, only a private school that caters to students with significant intellectual and behavioral disabilities posted lower numbers. Indiana Virtual’s rate is up slightly from 5.7 percent the year before.

It’s possible there are other schools with lower graduation rates, but the state does not release data for schools with fewer than 10 students in the graduating class to comply with federal privacy laws.

The graduation data, released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, comes months after a Chalkbeat Investigation found widespread low performance at Indiana Virtual School and questionable business and spending practices.

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

From 2016 to 2017, the school’s graduating class more than doubled. Last May, Indiana Virtual School enrolled nearly 4,700 students. Despite Indiana Virtual’s poor performance, it continues to bring in millions of dollars from the state. In September, it opened a second school. After shifting almost 3,000 of its students to the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy in the fall, Indiana Virtual had 3,376 students.

Indiana Virtual has received two failing grades from the state since it opened in 2011. Last year, 20 percent of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students and 8 percent of 10th-graders at Indiana Virtual passed the English and math state tests. Statewide, about half of students in grades K-8 and one-third of high school students passed both exams.

Thomas Burroughs, the school’s lawyer and former board member, defended the school’s performance to Chalkbeat in October, saying the school offers a last chance to students who would have no other way to graduate. The school’s superintendent, Percy Clark, also said many students at the school enroll after having been expelled elsewhere and start behind their peers.

Across the state, 87.2 percent of students graduated from high school in 2017. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students in a high school cohort by the number of them who graduate as seniors after four years.

Every online charter school in Indiana graduated fewer students than the state as a whole, though some, such as Indiana Connections Academy and Hoosier Academy Indianapolis, a hybrid school with a traditional campus on the city’s east side, show marked improvement from last year. Insight School of Indiana has no data for 2016 because it had not yet opened.

School 2017 graduation rate 2016 graduation rate
Indiana Virtual School 6.50% 5.7%
Hoosier Academy Indianapolis 68.42% 53.3%
Insight School of Indiana 17.21%
Hoosier Academy Virtual 23.32% 22.7%
Indiana Connections Academy 49.48% 43.9%

Although Gov. Eric Holcomb has already committed to working with the state board to look into online charter schools, he has not specified what action they will take. Earlier this month, lawmakers also proposed laws to tighten up the state’s rules for charter school oversight, but this soon in the legislative session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get.

Learn more about Indiana Virtual School and online charters in the state here.