Indiana online schools

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

PHOTO: Hero Images

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

Here’s how some of Indiana’s online schools are trying to fix low testing turnout

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Some Indiana parents, students, and educators praise online schools for allowing students to learn anywhere they want, but it’s exactly that flexibility that leads to one of the schools’ biggest struggles: ensuring students sit for state exams.

Virtual schools have historically struggled to get all of their students tested, compared to their brick-and-mortar peers. While 99 percent of traditional school students are tested throughout the state, in online schools, rates generally fall below the federally mandated 95 percent. In 2017, the most recent data available, most of Indiana’s online schools had test participation rates in the mid-80s and low 90s, with Indiana Virtual School testing just 35 percent of its students.

The schools say they struggle to get a higher number of students tested because they are scattered across the state and often have to drive long distances to testing sites. Also the parents of students at virtual charter schools are often more likely to want their children to “opt out” of tests for philosophical reasons, school leaders say.

Low turnout for state tests can have ramifications for schools: If more than 5 percent of a school’s students skip the ISTEP exams, schools lose points on their state A-F grades.

What’s more, if enough students don’t take tests, the state can’t get a full picture of how they are performing. This could pose a significant problem for virtual schools that already have trouble educating their students, some of whom struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level. Every virtual school in Indiana received an F grade from the state in 2017.

And low test turnout might also be a piece of a larger problem with a school’s ability to create community and engage far-flung students.

In recent years, several virtual schools have made it a priority to get students to sit for state exams. One school says it spent $500,000 last year on testing, including hotel rooms for proctors near testing sites. Another has a “war room” where school leaders tackle testing issues, an approach that has led to a 15 percentage point jump in testing rates, the school says. We’ll learn if some of these efforts are paying off in the coming months, when the state is expected to release updated test participation rates along with A-F grades.

“You can probably imagine it’s a massive undertaking,” said Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls more than 4,600 students. “We try to remind people that they agreed to do this, that the test is just a look at their performance and it allows Indiana to evaluate our school … we try to be positive.”

Ensuring online students take standardized tests is a challenge nationally, as well. According to a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center, low testing participation rates for virtual schools “allows their performance to go largely unchecked” because in many states a low enough rate lets schools duck state ratings. States should adjust their policies to close this loophole, the researchers said.

Test participation is one of the areas that state officials are examining as they consider further regulating virtual charter schools after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming the schools in response to a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students.

At a meeting last month of the Indiana State Board of Education committee charged with re-examining the virtual school rules, state officials presented test participation data from 2017.

Virtual charter schools say ensuring their students take state exams during two-week-long windows twice a year is expensive and time-consuming. At Connections, Brown said, the school spends about $500,000 on testing each year. Coordinating test days are expensive in part because staff must travel and stay overnight in hotels in order to procter.

Connections has 18 testing locations across the state, and no family should have to travel more than 50 miles to their assigned location. Students might test at a library, convention center, hotel, or community college — but the schools have to rent the space, furnish it with computers, and contract with vendors to ensure servers meet state security guidelines. They also spend time training teachers and staff on test security.

Because families often are traveling some distance, Brown said school leaders try to schedule siblings on the same day and condense testing as much as state rules allow so parents aren’t driving back and forth multiple times a week. That means students might have more testing in a single day, but test for fewer days overall than in a brick-and-mortar school. In 2017, 91 percent of Connections students were tested.

Like at traditional schools, students with special needs receive their required testing accommodations, such as longer test times or a specific environment. At its largest site, 30 students might be in one room at a time, but usually the group is much smaller, Brown said, especially in rural communities.

For students attending the Insight School, a full-time virtual charter school under the Hoosier Academies umbrella that caters to students far behind grade level, the testing process is similar. Elizabeth Lamey, head of school at Insight, said she oversees 12 sites across the state, and families shouldn’t have to travel more than 30 minutes to their assigned spot. If families cannot get there on their own, the school helps provide transportation. In 2017, 84 percent of Insight students were tested.

“It’s quite a process — we have a war room here at our administration building where it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lamey said.

School leaders find it challenging to sell the importance of state tests to virtual families, many of whom signed on explicitly to avoid what they see as restrictive school rules or intimidating social situations. Families at virtual schools are also more inclined, in Brown’s experience, to advocate for “opting out” of state tests intentionally on principle, not just for logistical reasons.

Last year, between 80 and 100 students opted out at Connections. Lamey said Insight has families who choose to opt out as well. In Indiana, there is no state-approved way for opting out of tests — state officials do not give schools any leeway in accountability for families who deliberately refuse to test.

“We do have a good chunk of families that want to own their child’s education, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re in our school, and so they’re more likely to (opt out),” Brown said. “Many of those children that are opting out are really high-performing students who just don’t believe in state testing.”

Brown and her staff, as well as those at Insight, communicate frequently with families leading up to tests to ensure they know where to go and when, and to remind them that testing was something they agreed to when they enrolled.

Not all students face testing challenges. Jeremiah Hitch, a 14-year-old freshman at Indiana Connections Academy, said he and his family haven’t had any big problems with getting to and from testing sites. Hitch lives in Evansville, and the testing site was at a convention center just a few miles from his home. He actually enjoys testing days, since he gets to see his teachers face-to-face.

Usually, Hitch said, he’s in a small room with few other students testing, in part because of his special education plan that requires that accomodation for his ADHD. Last year, he spent two days testing in each testing period. Compared to his previous traditional public school, this set-up is not nearly as distracting.

“Even during ISTEP (in the traditional school) you would still have something happening,” Hitch said. “It was a lot more quiet than usual, but it could still be very distracting. With ISTEP now, it’s a lot better.”

Both Connections and Insight expect their participation rates to be about the same or higher than last year, citing rates of about 90 percent and 98.5 percent respectively. Brown and Lamey said communication has been key — between teachers and parents, teachers and administrators, and teachers and students.

“That approach is something that has changed from the previous year,” Lamey said. “We’re undergoing a huge cultural shift at our school … we’re really trying to create an atmosphere, a culture of measurement. No one person holds the responsibility, it’s all of us.”

Indiana Virtual School did not return multiple requests for comment, but at a public meeting last month, school officials said they expected a 92 percent participation rate, up from 35 percent in 2017. Clark said they incentivized students to show up.

“We bought a lot of pizza,” he told the state board’s virtual school committee members.

A jump of that magnitude, in one year, would be a major achievement for the school, which has a history of testing issues. Until 2017, just a small fraction of students took tests each year. And last year, when the school’s rate was 35 percent, superintendent Percy Clark told Chalkbeat that many students still took tests on paper because the school couldn’t control outside computer security.

Even when Clark arrived at Indiana Virtual, he said they “were in hot water” in regards to taking ISTEP, though the school had far fewer students then compared to more than 3,300 today. Details about testing during Indiana Virtual’s early years came to light in a 2014 lawsuit brought against the school by then-superintendent Dave Stashevsky, who was suing for non-payment. At the time Stashevsky was also an educator in Daleville Public Schools, the small rural district that oversees Indiana Virtual School. Depositions in the case revealed that the school had tested very few students, if any — a result of disorganization at the school level and students being scattered across the state.

“Many of them didn’t make it that far to take the test,” a former teacher who taught at the school early on told Chalkbeat last year, requesting her name be withheld out of concerns about backlash from the school. “They left, or they didn’t complete the curriculum, or they kind of fell off the face of the Earth … (I) had no clue about when they took it, if they took it.”

Virtual schools’ struggles to engage families in state testing might also speak to the schools’ larger problem keeping students active and engaged in an online learning environment.

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in conversations Indiana policymakers have about improving online charter schools. If schools are more engaged with students and parents, and students are more engaged with their coursework, there’s more success, the theory goes.

Testing is one part of that relationship. Although, like brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools can’t force students to take tests, the absence of a physical schooling environment can make it more even more difficult to make testing a priority.

But neither online schools nor policymakers have found a surefire way to ensure that those strong relationships are built. Stronger introductions to online learning when parents enroll their children could be a factor, as could policies some online school advocates praise that let schools expel students who fail to participate after a certain length of time.

Lamey said that a new state policy that lets online schools remove students who aren’t a good fit for that type of learning has been beneficial for the school and for families.

“We don’t want a child to stay in this situation if they’re not finding success,” Lamey said. “We feel like we have a strong culture of support here for our students, but if it’s not working we want them to have success in school.”

Here’s the breakdown of ISTEP participation rates for each virtual charter school in the state that tested students last year, per state data.

2017 ISTEP Math Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,173 1,973 91%
Insight School of Indiana 317 267 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 314 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,594 1,489 93%

 

2017 ISTEP English Expected to test Tested Participation rate
Indiana Connections Academy 2,170 1,947 90%
Insight School of Indiana 320 268 84%
Indiana Virtual School 890 308 35%
Hoosier Academy Virtual* 1,597 1,470 92%

*Hoosier Academy Virtual closed this past June.

Indiana online schools

A new idea for fixing Indiana’s virtual charter schools: Let them choose their students

PHOTO: patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some charter school advocates have a provocative idea for how states can address the widespread failures in virtual charter schools: Let them pick and choose their students.

The idea would require the state to create a new kind of school. In that model, virtual schools could be allowed to enroll students based on the likelihood they’d do well in a virtual setting or on the support they have at home — similar to magnet schools that choose students based on test scores or interest in a certain subject. This would mean they could no longer be considered charter schools, which are public schools required by law to enroll any student who wants to attend.

The national charter school organizations say that not all students are suited to online learning and that one potential solution is letting virtual schools screen out those who aren’t. They acknowledge that this proposal should be a last resort for fixing virtual schools’ troubles. Given Indiana’s history with nontraditional school models, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

“One recommendation is actually potentially considering virtual charter schools as something else besides charter schools,” said Veronica Brooks, policy director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Indiana has been quite the leader in the country in terms of thinking about different types of schools.”

Brooks pointed to Indiana’s adult high schools, which grant diplomas but are funded and measured differently from traditional high schools; and innovation schools, which can be charter schools or traditional public schools that are under a district umbrella but get extra autonomy in curriculum, budgeting, and other operations.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, was stunned that it could even be seriously suggested that public schools could get to choose their own students.

“They can pick the students they want to get the results they want to get funded?” DeLaney said. “Other than for a very tiny subset of kids with severe, clinically recognized physical or mental disabilities — other than that, and I do mean tiny subset — I have no interest in supporting virtual charter schools in any way, shape, or form.”

The recommendation came among ideas presented Monday to the Indiana State Board of Education’s virtual charter school committee, which is considering how to better regulate the schools. Representatives from four national charter advocacy groups suggested new regulations and possible changes Indiana could make to existing laws. They mostly agreed on solutions, which included cracking down on lax oversight, controlling growth, reducing financial incentives for opening and overseeing virtual schools, and rethinking metrics of success.

Gordon Hendry, the chairman of the state board committee, said he found the concept of a new school type interesting but said the committee needed more time to discuss it. The committee could make recommendations for policymakers before the legislative session begins in January.

“The fact that there may be special rules, regulations that apply specifically to virtual charter schools is something that we have been thinking about and will continue thinking about as this process moves forward,” Hendry said.

The committee was created after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming virtual charter schools, in response to a Chalkbeat investigation that last year revealed one of the state’s largest virtual schools had years of low performance, was hiring few teachers, and was engaging in questionable spending and business practices.

In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students. But despite rapid growth, the schools have not shown that they can educate most students and get them to graduate. Every virtual school received an F grade from the state in 2017.

For their part, the schools say they enroll many students who struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level.

Changing the nature of what virtual charter schools are or allowing them to limit student enrollment would require major changes to policy and state law. Currently, public schools are not allowed to turn students away. Creating a kind of public school that could, Brooks said, might contradict the original goal of the school choice philosophy.

“The charter school movement in very large part was built on a foundation of open enrollment, that charter schools should be open and accessible to all,” Brooks said.

Other major online school providers, such as K12 Inc., which operates Hoosier Academies schools in Indiana, have spoken out against the idea in the past, saying it can “create perverse incentives for schools to turn away at-risk children.”

Because public school funding is tied to student enrollment, selective enrollment policies could present an interesting dilemma for virtual schools that, like other schools, need students to stay afloat financially.

Enabling virtual schools to turn away some students wouldn’t necessarily require them to fix the problems inherent in virtual learning, where students are often unsupervised and the number of teachers and student support might not keep pace with enrollment.

But virtual charter operators might find the proposal an attractive option in the face of low academic progress. And, some charter school advocates say, it could keep students from languishing in schools that aren’t serving them.

Currently, students who aren’t a good fit for the independent, self-motivated learning environment of online schools, or who lack adult support at home, are more likely to drop out, do poorly on state tests, and not graduate on time, if they do at all.

A 2016 report Brooks’ group did with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said virtual schools aren’t necessarily creating programs that are accessible for all students, and often, their students aren’t equipped to be successful there.

“Indeed many of the biggest operators of full-time virtual charter schools appear to have developed programs that are only designed to be effective with self-motivated students and/or students with highly involved parents,” the report said.

Tellingly, the report stated that if after other policy changes are attempted and the only way to avoid large-scale failure is to limit enrollment, “we believe that many states will decide that full- time virtual school offerings are simply incompatible with the goals of their charter school laws.”

Chad Aldis, with the Fordham Institute, highlighted a different version of selective enrollment that Indiana already uses — what he called “disenrollment.”

In this process, a virtual charter school would still be considered a public charter school, but it would have the freedom to expel a student who was not engaged and meeting the school’s attendance and participation requirements. In a July blog post on Fordham’s website, Aldis justifies the idea:

“Just imagine the impact on a student of doing virtually no work for several years, and the limited ability of the teacher to intervene because of the online nature of the relationship,” Aldis wrote. “It could very well create an unrecoverable gap, especially for disadvantaged students.”

Advocates on Monday praised Indiana’s recently adopted virtual charter school “engagement” policy, which requires schools to contact parents and investigate why a student isn’t participating. It could lead to a student being expelled.

If Indiana were to allow virtual schools to choose its students, the state would have to figure out how to address the large number of students who might be displaced.

Virtual charter school leaders in the state have said their failures stem from their schools being a last resort for many students who are expelled or have other problems learning elsewhere.

But if Indiana were to allow virtual schools to pass those students by, it’s not clear how they would get the education they need and who would take responsibility for them.