Virtual schools should be more accountable, not less

Leaders of Indiana’s virtual charter schools say they shouldn’t be evaluated as other schools are, on test scores and graduation rates. That’s not surprising: Their test scores and graduation rates are abysmal.

One the one hand, they may have a point. Schools that deliver instruction online are different from so-called brick-and-mortar schools, and arguably they should be judged by different criteria. But accountability for virtual schools should be stronger, not weaker, than for conventional schools.

These statewide schools enroll over 12,000 students and are funded by Hoosier taxpayers to the tune of $80 million a year. Unlike public schools, they aren’t responsive to elected officials or to local communities that they serve. If the state doesn’t hold them accountable, no one will.

All the virtual charter schools received an F from the state in 2017. How bad was their performance?

  • Indiana Virtual School had a high-school graduation rate last year of 6.4 percent. Twenty percent of its students in grades 6-8 passed ISTEP exams, compared to 53.5 percent statewide.
  • Indiana Connections Academy had a graduation rate of 49.5 percent, compared to the state average of 87.2 percent; 31.4 percent of its students passed ISTEP.
  • Insight School had a graduation rate of 17.2 percent; only two of 111 students in 10th grade passed state math and English exams.

Another school, Hoosier Academies Virtual School, closed voluntarily this spring after years of low grades. Indiana Connections Academy split into two virtual schools, possibly to dodge accountability.

Advocates for virtual schools say they shouldn’t be judged the same as regular schools because they serve more at-risk students. It’s probably true that many students enroll in the schools after they’ve struggled. Virtual schools may serve more students who have medical issues or have been bullied.

But virtual schools generally enroll fewer poor, minority and limited-English students than urban public schools. It’s not clear that their students face more severe challenges than the many children from poor families who attend Indianapolis and Gary schools, for example.

Virtual schools claim many of their students enroll after having fallen behind in their home schools, so it’s not fair to judge them by test scores. But there’s little evidence virtual schools are helping students catch up. Their “growth scores,” a measure of how test scores improved, are well below average.

Advocates also argue that virtual education is new, and the schools should get more time to improve. One principal said regulation that forces some virtual schools to close would be “like killing a baby.” But Indiana has had virtual charter schools since 2009. Why aren’t they doing a better job?

Maybe because no one has insisted, and the money has kept flowing. The majority of Indiana’s virtual charter schools are operated by for-profit businesses. Accountability is to shareholders, not to students or the public. They make money by recruiting students and growing their enrollment.

Insight School and, until recently, Hoosier Academies Virtual School, were run by K12 Inc., a publicly traded company whose CEO received compensation last year of over $3 million. Indiana Connections Academy is run by Connections Education, a division of the education-services giant Pearson.

Indiana Virtual School has paid millions of dollars in fees and rent to a for-profit company run by the school’s founder, a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation revealed. Remarkably, Indiana Virtual has reported a student-to-teacher ratio of 180-to-1. Nationally, the average student-teacher ratio is 45-to-1 for virtual schools and 16-to-1 for regular schools.

Prompted by Chalkbeat’s reporting and the schools’ performance, the Indiana State Board of Education created a committee on virtual education. It met last week for the second time. The panel appropriately started by compiling data, going over current regulations and questioning officials with virtual charter schools and their authorizers. But as chairman Gordon Hendry said, that’s just “scratching the surface.”

A logical next step would be to hear from national experts, like Western Michigan’s Gary Miron, who reviews online education for the National Education Policy Center. If they haven’t already, panel members should read Miron’s reports and Education Week stories about problems with virtual schools.

If those who work with virtual schools – accrediting organizations, consultants, etc. – have evidence of practices that work, committee members should hear about that too. But given the schools’ records so far, they should be skeptical of promises. They need to dig deeply into this complicated topic and come up with recommendations to ensure students, families and taxpayers are treated fairly.

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