New accountability could be coming to Indiana’s online K-12 schools. A State Board of Education committee is recommending stricter oversight, limits on growth and class size and other measures targeting “virtual schools,” most of which are charter schools.
The board will consider the proposals today. Most would require action by the Indiana General Assembly, which begins its 2019 session in January.
The committee on virtual schools was created in response to low tests scores and other issues at virtual charter schools. In one example, a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found that Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, had a student-teacher ratio of over 200-to-1 and paid millions of dollars in rent and management fees to a business run by its founder.
- Require all virtual schools to be authorized by a single authorizer. That would address an issue with Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy; both are authorized by a small rural district that collects about $1 million a year in authorizing fees.
- Reduce fees that authorizers receive for virtual charter schools from the current 3 percent of the schools’ state revenue to 1.25 percent, or 2 percent with state board approval.
- Impose consequences on virtual schools that get four straight F’s from the state. One proposal says a school that gets four F’s couldn’t add students until it raises its grade to a C.
- Require students to go through “onboarding/orientation” to be sure they understand how online education works before they enroll.
- Impose maximum student-teacher ratios of 50-to-1 for grades K-6 and 100-to-1 for grades 7-12. (That seems lenient, given that the national average for virtual schools is 45-to-1).
The recommendations also call for expanding the regulatory authority of the State Board of Education to all virtual schools, not just virtual charter schools. That would close a loophole that let Union School Corp., a small school district in eastern Indiana, contract with the for-profit company K-12 Inc. to enroll online students from across the state.
Virtual schools may benefit some students who struggle in brick-and-mortar schools, but their academic performance has been abysmal. Most get F’s, or occasionally D’s, on the school grading system. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, one of the largest schools in the state, had so few qualifying students take state tests last year that it didn’t even receive a grade. Yet these schools market themselves aggressively and sign up more students every year.
I’m skeptical that the state board’s recommendations will turn around the schools’ performance. But they’re a start, and maybe they will encourage parents to look critically at the promise of online schools.