Online school leaves students behind

I thought I’d heard it all when it came to questionable practices in the name of school choice. But then I read about Indiana Virtual School. After a seven-month investigation, Chalkbeat Indiana revealed how the online charter school has raked in public money while apparently doing little to educate students.

“One of Indiana’s largest high schools ended this past school year with almost 5,000 students, but no desks and no classrooms,” Chalbeat’s Shaina Cavazos writes. “The school also had very few graduates — 61 out of more than 900 seniors graduated last year. What Indiana Virtual School did have: Tens of millions in state dollars due to come its way over the next two years, and a founder whose for-profit company charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school.”

Some highlights:

  • The school had only 21 teachers for 4,682 students at the end of last school year, a ratio of 222 students per teachers.
  • Just 10 percent of its spending went to instruction while 89 percent went to “support services,” according to data provided to the state. It spent just 7 percent on teacher and staff salaries.
  • It paid about $6 million for management services and office space to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company headed until last year by Thomas Stoughton, the school’s founder and leader.

Indiana Virtual School officials claim they’re providing a safety net for students who have struggled. Many students were expelled by their former schools or gave up on education, the officials say.

That’s a noble calling, but judging by performance data, the safety net is frayed. The school got a grade of F from the state in 2016 and 2017, the only years it has received a grade. Its graduation rate last year was 5.7 percent. Its test scores are some of the lowest in the state.

As described in the story, students have little interaction with teachers or each other. They’re mostly on their on to work through online lessons. School leaders don’t even talk a good game on technology, making vague references to “text-to-speech” tools and “gamifying” courses.

Even charter-school advocates are running away from this mess. “Unconscionable,” tweeted the Indianapolis charter promoter and funder the Mind Trust.

Here’s the kicker. In Indiana, the only real check on charter-school quality is the school’s authorizer. And Indiana Virtual School is one of the few charter schools in the state to be authorized by a public school district: Daleville Community Schools, a tiny, rural district near Muncie.

Daleville schools also authorized a new Indiana Virtual School sister school, called Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. Together, the two claim to enroll over 6,000 online students. Under state law, Daleville gets 3 percent of the state funding received by the charter schools. By my calculations, that’s over $1 million this year: a hefty windfall for a district with fewer than 1,000 students.

You would think someone would try to put the brakes on this activity. Instead, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways grow and prosper — even if their students don’t. According to Chalkbeat, Stoughton and his colleagues are working to open similar schools in Texas and Michigan.

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