Audit: Virtual school paid millions to founder’s company

A 2015-16 audit report for Indiana Virtual School was released last week, and it shows the school continued to pay millions of dollars to for-profit companies run by the school’s founder and his son.

Chalkbeat Indiana laid out the details of this arrangements in an investigation published in October 2017. The online charter school, while organized as a nonprofit entity, paid management, administrative and technology fees to AlphaCom Inc., a business run by school founder Thomas Stoughton.

It also paid A Simple Reminder, a business run by Stoughton’s son, for IT and marketing services. Thomas Stoughton, the AlphaCom head, also served as chairman of the Indiana Virtual School board.

In 2015-16, according to the audit report, the school was charged:

  • $6,156,179 by AlphaCom.
  • $1,255,000 by A Simple Reminder.

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Bad week for ‘school choice’

Last week was a bad one for the claim that school choice can cure whatever ails education in Indiana. Choice doesn’t always lead to good outcomes.

Start with the story of Delaware Christian Academy in Muncie. Although the school has received $1.3 million in state voucher funding over five years, enrollment dwindled to six students. The building was condemned after an inspector found students “huddled around a kerosene heater in blankets.”

Then look to Indianapolis Lighthouse East. The charter school’s board voted to shut it down after a review conducted for its authorizer, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, cited problems with low test scores and graduation rates, unqualified teachers and lax discipline.

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Phyllis Bush, champion of public schools

Public schools lost a true champion with the death this week of Phyllis Bush, a retired Fort Wayne teacher and tireless activist who inspired us all with her with her truth-telling and optimism.

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof at the 2018 Network for Public Education conference.

Her passion for public schools was in no way abstract or ideological. It came from experience and relationships. She taught school for 32 years, including 24 years at Fort Wayne South Side High School. And she radiated love and loyalty for her fellow teachers and former students.

When she spoke out against school vouchers and charter schools, it was because she hated what they were doing to her beloved public schools and the 90 percent of students who attend them.

She died Tuesday after a lengthy battle against cancer, which she chronicled in a blog that she referred to, with characteristic humor, as “Cancer Schmantzer.”

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Poor schools neglected in funding plan

Hardly anyone wins in the 2019-21 budget and school funding formula approved by the Indiana House, but some schools lose more than others. And high-poverty school districts continue to fall behind.

Legislators have boasted that the budget increases K-12 funding by over 2 percent each of the next two years. But allowing for inflation and increasing enrollment, that’s effectively no increase at all.

As Northwest Allen County Superintendent Chris Himsel tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, the key figure is funding per student. Statewide, that will increase by just 1.5 percent in fiscal 2020 and 1.7 percent in fiscal 2021, according to school funding calculations released by House Republications.

And the increase won’t be distributed equally. That’s because funding for the “complexity” category, which funnels additional support to neediest students, is being cut by over $100 million.

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Study: Indiana lags on school funding

Indiana has fallen far behind neighboring states when it comes to funding K-12 education, according to a study released this week by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Robert Toutkoushian

Robert Toutkoushian

It’s also fallen behind where it used to rank on education spending and teacher salaries. A few years ago, Indiana did a relatively good job of funding schools, but it has slipped markedly in state rankings.

And it will take a lot of money to catch up, the study finds. The state would have to increase K-12 spending by nearly $1.5 billion a year to catch up with surrounding states. It would have to boost spending by $3.3 billion a year to get back the ranking it enjoyed five years previously.

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Lawmakers take first steps on virtual schools

Finally, the Indiana General Assembly is taking steps to regulate “virtual” or online charter schools. But it has a way to go to make the regulations as tough as they should be.

Gordon Hendry

Gordon Hendry

“Right now, I’m encouraged that the legislature is taking the issue seriously,” said Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education. “I think it’s still early – my hope is some additional items make it into final legislation, and I hope the governor encourages that.”

Hendry chaired a committee of the board that drafted recommendations for the legislature to adopt. Some of those recommendations are included in legislation; others aren’t, at least not yet.

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Voucher program serves the top 20 percent

Over 1,300 households that participate in Indiana’s school voucher program have incomes over $100,000, according to the 2018-19 voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

That puts them in the top 20 percent of Hoosier households by income. So much for the argument that the voucher program, created in 2011, exists to help poor children “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Like previous state reports on the voucher program, the current report paints a picture of a program that primarily promotes religious education and serves tens of thousands of families that could afford private school tuition without help from the taxpayers.

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