A new Indiana school that combines virtual education and elements of homeschooling is prompting questions about the limits of school choice and how the state will enforce K-12 regulations at a time when more parents are opting for online learning.
The school, Tech Trep Academy, is operated by a Utah company under contract with Cloverdale Community Schools. It opened in the fall of 2020 and enrolls 175 students.
Critics have focused on two issues: whether the school complies with state law that requires five or six hours of daily instruction, and whether it is appropriate to use state funds to buy “supplemental” learning materials for students, including computers and Disney Plus memberships.
Tech Trep director and marketing specialist Janet Cox said the school provides “the best of both worlds,” combining the close parent involvement of homeschooling with the structure and funding of a public school.
“The thing that really makes our program unique is the personalization,” Cox said. “Our goal is to help students love learning. If I can awaken that desire to love learning in a student, I’ve set that student on a path to success.”
But Kylene Varner, a Zionsville resident who homeschools her three children and is involved with the Indiana Association of Home Educators, objects to Tech Trep’s blurring of the lines between homeschooling and state-funded public education.
“I was just taken aback by the total disregard for what our laws say,” she said. “State code says students in grades 1-to-5 (in schools) have to attend five hours a day. That’s not what these parents are doing. They’re educating their children at home with state tax dollars and almost no supervision.”
Keri Miksza, chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, Monroe County, said Tech Trep is a disturbing but unsurprising outcome from Indiana’s embrace of unregulated school choice.
“Hoosiers should be concerned by the lack of oversight over yet another educational experiment paid for by their tax dollars,” she said.
Cloverdale receives about $5,000 per Tech Trep student, according to the Indiana Department of Education, or $875,000 for the current school year. The district gives 80% of the funding to Tech Trep and retains 20%.
Tech Trep Indiana – Trep is short for entrepreneurship – opened in partnership with Middlebury Community Schools, a district near Elkhart. Middlebury got cold feet after state officials questioned the school’s promise to provide each student with $1,700 to spend on learning materials. Officials suggested the payments could violate a law against giving families something of value as an incentive to enroll.
But Tech Trep quickly signed a new contract, called an agreement for services, with Cloverdale Community Schools, a rural district of 1,000 students that includes parts of Putnam and Owen counties. In place of the $1,700 stipend, it switched to a point system in which families can direct Tech Trep to buy them learning materials and services.
According to a Tech Trep parent guide, the points can be used for a range of options, including books, educational games and toys, online curricula, computers and printers, science equipment, museum memberships, private lessons and Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime subscriptions. They can’t be used for religious materials, furniture, clothing, food, or sports equipment that costs more than $150.
Cloverdale Superintendent Greg Linton said he is confident Tech Trep will comply with state law.
“As the agreement for services provides, Tech Trep agrees not to take any action that would violate state law,” Linton said by email. “Additionally, Tech Trep agrees to indemnify Cloverdale Community Schools for any fines or charges caused by Tech Trep’s actions.”
Holly Lawson, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the contract doesn’t absolve Cloverdale of responsibility. “Cloverdale is just as responsible for making sure that Tech Trep is following all Indiana laws as they are responsible for making sure their brick-and-mortar schools are as well,” she said.
Tech Trep, a privately held company, started in Utah and also advertises programs in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Tennessee, Arkansas and Indiana. Some of its greatest growth has been in Idaho.
According to Idaho Education News, a Tech Trep program enrolled nearly 2,000 online students in 2019-20 in the remote Oneida School District in southeastern Idaho. But state test results were disappointing: Fewer than 25% of Oneida’s online students were proficient in math, compared to a state average of 45.1%.
Cox, the Tech Trep director, said the Indiana school employs seven teachers, who “work with parents and students to create supportive learning plans, grade student work, provide direct instruction, and help with response to intervention needs and testing.”
Teachers help students and families set learning goals, she said, and they evaluate “learning logs” of student work that are submitted each week. Teachers, who work part-time, are expected to respond to student and family questions within 24 hours.
Tech Trep provides online learning materials for core courses and helps families supplement those as they choose. “Our curriculum is basically the state standards,” Cox said. “We give you different ways to meet and mark off those standards over the year.”
Cox said it’s up to families to ensure students are doing the work, but teachers keep track.
“Our families know the expectation is that students are working five or six hours,” she said. “We identify and provide extra work for those families we suspect may not be putting in the time, or if the student needs extra help.”
But Varner, the Noblesville homeschool parent, who for a time participated in a Facebook group for Tech Trep families, said putting parents in charge of day-to-day learning flies in the face of Indiana’s requirement of certified teachers and specified instructional time for public schools.
“Just having teacher looking at learning logs, that’s not sufficient,” she said.
There’s also the matter of public oversight of how public money is spent. The State Board of Accounts audits public schools to ensure their spending is legal and proper. How will that work for Tech Trep?
“Who is ensuring that the children are receiving the funding instead of someone else in the household?” asked Miksza, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, Monroe County, chair. “Who ensures that the funds are being used towards their education?”
Whatever the pros and cons, Tech Trep arrived in Indiana at an opportune time. When most schools closed their buildings and switched to online classes last spring, some parents got comfortable with guiding their children’s learning at home. When schools resumed in-person classes, some opted to stay online, either with their local schools or alternatives like Tech Trep or other virtual schools.
State legislators, meanwhile, may be unlikely to exercise oversight, with their leaders having adopted a philosophy that parents should choose whatever education they want for their children, and the public should pay for it. The House has voted to create a new Education Savings Account program that would give families money to spend on educational services, similar to what Tech Trep does.
Legislators are also on track to change the law so online schools receive the same per-pupil funding as brick-and-mortar schools – they currently get 85% of full funding. For Tech Trep Academy and Cloverdale schools, that would be a windfall of about $170,000.