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

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.

Indiana online schools

4 takeaways from Indiana’s first review of its troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: PeopleImages/Getty

At its inaugural meeting Tuesday, a group of Indiana State Board of Education members puzzled over how far they could go to try to fix the many problems facing the state’s virtual charter schools — and it turns out, they have more power than they might have thought.

Tim Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, said the committee — and by extension, the full state board — can explore whatever policy areas it wishes.

“The only restriction on this is the board’s imagination,” Schultz said.

That may come as a surprise to some onlookers, since state officials have created few regulations governing virtual charter schools that receive millions in taxpayer dollars but post disappointing academic results.

Read: In the Wild West of virtual learning, an Indiana charter school is opening in an unlikely place — a farm

The only board-drafted rules in place, written in 2010 in the early days of online charter schools, mostly contained definitions and guidance on counting students for funding purposes. It amounted to two printed pages, in contrast to the dozens of pages the board has devoted to other issues such as A-F accountability grades and dropout recovery, said Gordon Hendry, a state board member and the chairman of the committee looking into online charter schools.

So it is clear, Hendry said, that policymakers have more work to do.

One area where the board might need some help from lawmakers is state funding. The board can’t unilaterally decide to change how much money virtual charter schools get per student, for example, since that is specified in the state’s school funding formula.

A critical area to watch will be in what — if anything — the state board can do to address how virtual charter schools are overseen, which lawmakers attempted to take on unsuccessfully earlier this year.

Here are four takeaways from the group’s discussion:

Indiana is not the only state struggling to shore up online charter schools — but other states have made more progress

Schultz presented numerous examples of possible policy changes from other states that Indiana could adopt or use as a jumping-off point. For example, Colorado and Florida more closely track how much students are participating in their online work and how often they are attending online classes.

Minnesota even requires written parental approval for a student to enroll in a virtual program, Schultz said. That move could make it easier for schools to engage with parents right off the bat, and help them understand more about what virtual learning requires and how it differs from a traditional school.

“Many states are pursuing a much more active involvement on the front end,” Schultz said. “It’s not uniform across the board, but a number of states have now taken the position that enrollment does not occur until a student has gone through orientation, or some form of that.”

Schultz also pointed to how Florida requires virtual charter schools provide computer equipment for students poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. In New Mexico, he said, students get help accessing assistive technology, which are devices or tools that can make using computers easier for students with special needs.

In South Carolina, students are required to have 25 percent of their instruction be taught live, while other states put limits on how high student-to-teacher ratios can reach.

All of these steps could improve student performance at Indiana’s virtual charter schools, where more than 13,000 student attend school, state board staff said. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school in the state received an F grade from the state, and despite small improvements from the prior year, most schools had fewer students passing English and math exams than the state average.

“We’re not alone in this,” Schultz said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Indiana doesn’t have rules for virtual charter schools on even some of the basic issues

Board members were surprised to learn online schools lack regulations around teachers. Indiana has no limits — for virtual charter schools or any other schools, for that matter — on how large class sizes can be or on how many teachers schools must hire. That means student-to-teacher ratios can vary widely.

The state also hasn’t clarified, specifically in regards to virtual schools, whether teachers have to be Indiana residents on top of having an Indiana teaching license.

“I just am shocked that we have questions about these things,” said board member Cari Whicker.

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

On average across the U.S., public schools tend to have one teacher for every 16 students, while virtual schools have one teacher for every 45, as reported by the National Education Policy Center.

In Indiana, virtual charter schools’ ratios run the gamut, according to 2017 data from the state presented Tuesday, but averaged at about one teacher for every 60 students. Here’s how it broke down in specific schools:

  • Indiana Connections Academy: One teacher for every 29 students
  • Insight School of Indiana: One teacher for every 41 students
  • Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School: One teacher for every 49 students
  • Indiana Virtual School: One teacher for every 123 students

Students who tend to enroll in virtual charter schools need a lot more support across the board

Ron Sandlin, the state board’s director of school performance and transformation, pointed out that Indiana’s virtual charter school students typically spend less than two years in an online school, and when they get there, they’ve usually already spent several years in high school.

So it’s not just incumbent on virtual schools to improve of student performance — the state needs to ensure students have the support they need before they get there, too.

Falling behind grade level before transferring to an online school could be one reason why the schools’ state test scores and graduation rates are particularly low. If students come in behind grade level and are very transient, it doesn’t set them up to do well on tests or finish school on time.

Next steps: Data, data, and more data

Hendry, Whicker, and the third committee member, Maryanne McMahon all had areas they wanted to explore as the committee continues to meet monthly.

Hendry said he’d like more information on virtual education programs that aren’t charter schools. That could include a rural district that, as Chalkbeat reported, is pulling in hundreds of students from across the state with its new online program.

Whicker said she wanted more information from authorizers, the entities that oversee virtual charter schools.

“What it sounds like is in Indiana, they have the freedom to set their own policies,” Whicker said. She was curious about what current authorizers were doing and how they make decisions on how to monitor schools.

And McMahon said she’s interested in seeing success stories: Where is virtual education working?

All agreed there was still a lot of work to do. Board member David Freitas, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting, said policymakers have a big responsibility ahead of them.

“It’s sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant — at this point there are so many issues,” he said. “Where do we start?”