It should be a no-brainer for Indiana lawmakers to rein in abuses by low-performing virtual charter schools. But there are few sure things in the General Assembly.
As Chalkbeat Indiana reported, virtual charter schools have spent heavily in recent years to lobby legislators. They have also contributed generously to political campaigns. They will be heard.
Regulation is needed because virtual charter schools, which provide all or most of their instruction online, have some of the worst academic performance in the state. Most have consistently received Fs in the state’s school grading system, and their test scores and graduation rates tend to be low.
A Chalkbeat investigation found questionable business practices at one such school, Indiana Virtual School. Its more recently opened sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, had a 2018 graduation rate of 2.2 percent. Yet it didn’t receive a school grade because too few of its tenth-graders took required tests – even though, with over 6,000 students, it is the largest school in the state.
Gov. Eric Holcomb has called for stricter oversight of virtual schools, and there are signs that legislators are on board. The House Education Committee last week approved House Bill 1172, authored by committee chairman Bob Behning. It would require students who enroll in virtual schools to take part in orientation and “onboarding” to be sure they understand what’s required to succeed in online education. (Virtual schools favor this idea).
The bill also says that, in the future, only statewide authorizers – i.e., the Indiana Charter School Board and colleges and universities – may authorize virtual charter schools. That means Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy would have to find a new authorizer when their current charters expire. Both are authorized by the Daleville Community Schools district.
Senate Bill 567, authored by Jeff Raatz, chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, generally follows recommendations from the Indiana State Board of Education. It would limit the size and growth of virtual charter schools and reduce the fees that authorizers may charge for overseeing the schools. If a virtual charter school gets four straight Fs from the state, the bill says, it won’t be able to enroll new students until it raises its grade to a C.
But operators and advocates for virtual schools are sure to push back. You could see that already at the Dec. 12 State Board of Education meeting, where several members worried that more regulation would limit the “flexibility” that allows online charter schools to “innovate.”
And the schools will make their concerns heard at the Statehouse. Virtual schools and the businesses that provide their services are spending over $100,000 a year on lobbying in Indiana, according to records from the lobby registration commission.
K-12 Inc. is the large, publicly traded company behind Insight School of Indiana, the now defunct Hoosier Virtual Academy and a large online program run by Union School Corp. It has contributed nearly $100,000 to Indiana political campaigns in recent years, nearly all of it to Republicans. Companies affiliated with Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy – called AlphaCom, A Simple Reminder and Education Innovation Research – contributed over $75,000 in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, all of it to Republicans.
No doubt legislators will want to create good policy when it comes to virtual charter schools. But they are sure to hear differing opinions about what that would look like.