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.

The House and Senate have approved similar measures, House Bill 1172 and Senate Bill 567. Both add requirements not only for virtual charter schools but for online programs offered by public school districts. They define virtual programs as those that offer more than half their instruction online.

The legislation reflects concerns about low test scores and graduation rates for Indiana virtual schools and revelations of loose oversight from the schools’ authorizers. Reporting by Chalkbeat Indiana has shown that two closely related schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, engaged in questionable business practices while producing abysmal academic results.

The authorizer of those schools, Daleville Community Schools, moved last week to revoke their charters. It cited data that fewer than one in 10 students who enrolled in Indiana Virtual School stayed all year; and of those who did, 60 percent didn’t earn any credits.

The two schools received $36.6 million in state funding in fiscal year 2018. “To me, that raises some serious questions about the use of taxpayer dollars,” Hendry said in a phone interview, adding that the state should investigate the schools’ practices.

Both the House and Senate bills would require virtual programs to provide “onboarding” to make sure new students and their families know what’s involved in taking online courses. They would prohibit local school districts – like Daleville — from authorizing virtual charter schools. The legislation also allows the State Board of Education to implement new rules for student-teacher ratios, financial reporting and other aspects of the operation of virtual schools.

Recommendations approved by the State Board of Education went further. They called for restricting the fees that authorizers of virtual charter schools could collect, putting limits on the size and growth of the schools and shutting them down after four straight F’s on Indiana’s school grading system.

Hendry said there’s a place for virtual education, including virtual charter schools, but regulation is needed to ensure that students have a reasonable chance to succeed.

“You hear it called the Wild West,” he said. “I think that’s a fair characterization of where we’re at, and we need to play some catch-up and ensure that state dollars are spent judiciously.”

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