Indiana online schools

‘How long do we let them fail’? Indiana committee begins review of virtual charter school rules

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images
The state board committee is expected to make recommendations to lawmakers and the rest of the board for adjusting virtual school rules.

As a group of state officials convene for the first time Tuesday to examine virtual charter schools, two prominent Indiana Republican lawmakers are calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of the schools.

“Whatever we’re doing is not working, because I don’t see where they’re improving,” said Ryan Mishler, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding, “With a virtual, if you’re failing so many years in a row, maybe we need to look at how long do we let them fail before we say you can’t operate.”

Mishler and House education chair Bob Behning told Chalkbeat that the oversight of virtual charter schools needs to be addressed, whether through changes to state law or action by the Indiana State Board of Education.

Indiana will have seven virtual charter schools at the start of the next school year, with three opening in the past year alone and one shutting down amid chronic bad grades. But their academic performance raises questions — four of the five schools graded by the state last year received F ratings.

Even for students who need a more flexible alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Mishler said, “If they’re not doing well, if they’re not graduating, how good is it for them?”

The committee, made up of members of the state board of education, are expected to provide recommendations for regulating the fast-growing sector of virtual charter schools. The formation of the committee comes after a Chalkbeat investigation exposed how Indiana Virtual School has collected tens of millions in state funding — while profiting a company that at the time was led by the school’s founder and board president — but hired very few teachers and graduated about 6 percent of students.

Another Chalkbeat investigation recently highlighted the unusual circumstances surrounding the opening of Indiana’s newest virtual charter school. An investment firm owned by the co-founder and school board treasurer of the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School purchased property that the school will eventually pay rent to use as a farm for hands-on learning. After questions from Chalkbeat about the possible conflict of interest, the co-founder said he would be stepping down from the board when the school opens next month.

“When you hear things like that, it does throw up a red flag,” Mishler said. “I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong, but I do think it’s something we need to look at.”

Chalkbeat has also examined how some statewide online charter schools have used what some consider a loophole in state law in order to open. Instead of looking to well-known authorizing agencies, some virtual charter schools are partnering with school districts that are inexperienced in charter oversight but set to gain financially from the arrangement.

This year, lawmakers hampered efforts to make changes to laws governing virtual charter schools. Three bills that would have put more restrictions on charter school authorizers were killed during last year’s legislative session. And none of the bills directly dealt with virtual schools.

State board committee chair Gordon Hendry said he and board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon will start on Tuesday with a broad overview of virtual school policies, as well as a review of data on school performance and operations.

“This isn’t an issue where we’re talking about 50 students at a particular school,” Hendry said. “We’re talking about thousands of students.”

Neither Hendry nor the other committee members said they had a strong sense of how much authority the state board has to make changes in this policy area, but they hoped to be able to suggest changes in time for next year’s legislative session.

“I know that we have some authority that’s been delegated under state law, but really I’m viewing this from a more global perspective,” Hendry said. “We want to help better inform state lawmakers as to what the current landscape is and really help them arrive at some potential new legislation that helps improve the education provided by Indiana virtual charter schools.”

Behning said the quality of online education in general — not just virtual charter schools — is a national problem.

“I think we have to look at virtual education as a whole — we can’t just say, well, it’s virtual charters,” he said. “If we do anything, we need to be comprehensive in the way we look at it.”

Behning had suggestions for some areas where improvements could be made to online education. He said to address online charter school performance, the state should explore how schools can ensure students are participating. In 2017, he authored a law that requires online charter schools to develop an “engagement policy” that outlines how students should be working. Under the policies, schools can expel students if they do not meet participation requirements.

But aside from that provision, there is little guidance for how virtual schools should track attendance, which schools report themselves to the state — a student could be counted present if they are enrolled in a course but never do any work.

“Technology is probably moving faster sometimes than we are moving in terms of policy and how we’re addressing that,” Behning said. “But I think there is urgency, because anytime a student doesn’t have an opportunity to be successful, that’s a problem.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools.

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.