Panel to take on virtual charter schools

The State Board of Education’s committee on virtual charter schools will have its first meeting today. It has a formidable task – figuring out how to bring effective oversight to the online schools that have become the fastest-growing education sector in Indiana.

“I think there’s just a real concern about accountability,” said Gordon Hendry, the state board member who will chair the committee. “Virtual charter schools should be accountable for their performance. We spend tens of millions of dollars on them, so we want to make sure the state of Indiana, as well as the parents and students, are getting the very best education possible.”

So far, they don’t seem to be. All four virtual schools that were in operation in 2016-17 received F’s in the state’s school grading system. Test scores and graduation rates were uniformly low, even though virtual schools generally serve less disadvantaged populations than public schools. Critics have referred to the sector as the Wild West for its anything-goes ethos.

  • A Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found that one of the schools, Indiana Virtual School, collected tens of millions in state funding and funneled revenue to a company that was led by the school’s founder. It employed one teacher per 222 students and had a graduation rate of 6.5 percent.
  • Hoosier Academies Virtual School earned F’s for six consecutive years but largely escaped sanctions from its authorizer, Ball State University, and the State Board of Education. (The school’s leader, Byron Ernest, is a state board member). The school’s board decided to shut it down after the 2017-18 school year, citing poor performance.
  • While one virtual school is closing, others are opening. The newest one, Indiana Agriculture and Technology School, will rent a farm from an investment firm owned by the school’s co-founder, Chalkbeat reported. Indiana Virtual School added a sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, and is using manipulative video ads to recruit students.

While they typically aren’t as well-known as brick-and-mortar charter schools, virtual charter schools, which deliver all or nearly all of their instruction online, enrolled over 13,000 Indiana students in 2017-18 – about 30 percent of the state’s charter students.

Nationwide, virtual schools enrolled nearly 300,000 students and tended to underperform public schools despite serving fewer poor and minority students, according to a report by Western Michigan University researchers for the National Education Policy Center. (The report includes detailed recommendations for improving online schools that Indiana officials should consider).

After the Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School was published, Gov. Eric Holcomb called on state officials to “put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance.” The legislature took a pass on the issue in its 2018 short session, leaving the matter to the state board.

The agenda for today’s committee meeting includes presentations on data and current rules and laws governing virtual schools along with a discussion of next steps. Hendry said the panel, which also includes board members Maryanne McMahon and Cari Whicker, will spend six months studying the issue and developing recommendations for steps that the board or legislature could take.

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