Homeschool ‘bridge’ program works to keep funding

Indiana legislators have given a green light – for now — to a school that helps parents use state education dollars to buy Hulu subscriptions, museum memberships and American Girl dolls.

The school, Tech Trep Academy, operates through an arrangement with Cloverdale Community Schools. The state considers it a virtual or online school, but in fact it’s part of a growing trend of “bridge” programs that combine the freedom of homeschooling with public funding.

It opened in 2020, recruiting homeschool families with a promise of $1,700 per student to spend on educational products and programs. State officials warned that was an illegal enrollment incentive, so the school switched to offering points that could be traded for goods and services.

That apparently didn’t satisfy Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee. He included language in House Bill 1093 to prohibit schools and school employees from offering anything of value as an incentive for families to enroll or continue to enroll their children.

“We want parents to choose what’s in their best interest, but we don’t want them to be doing it for financial reasons,” the Indianapolis Republican told Chalkbeat Indiana.

Critics also point out that Tech Trep doesn’t seem to comply with state law requiring daily instruction by a licensed teacher. Instead, parents can design their own curriculum and provide instruction, with students submitting “learning logs” to teachers, who provide guidance as needed.

The Cloverdale school district, meanwhile, benefits financially. Under an agreement with Tech Trep, the district gets 20% of the state funding that goes to the school. Tech Trep has about 375 students, so the district could net about $375,000 for the current school year.

There’s evidence that Tech Trep and Cloverdale officials have seen the state’s ban on enrollment incentives as a threat. According to 2021 emails obtained via a records request filed by public-education advocates, they hired the Capitol Group, an Indianapolis lobbying firm, and worked with Byron Ernest, a member of the State Board of Education, to court state decision-makers.

Those efforts appear to have resulted in meetings last summer with Indiana Department of Education and Indiana House Republican Caucus staff. Also, Cloverdale schools Superintendent Greg Linton said he met in July 2021 with Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, whose district includes Cloverdale.

“We had a good discussion for about an hour,” Linton reported. “He likes the program and is supportive.”

Even so, HB 1093 was filed and approved by the House. But three weeks ago, the Tech Trep Indiana assistant director posted to a private Facebook group that the school’s team had met with “important” legislators about the bill. “We felt heard today,” she wrote. “The bill amendments will be considered this Wednesday or the following Wednesday.”

In fact, that’s what happened. In a Feb. 16 meeting of Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee, Sen. Jeff Raatz, the committee chair, offered an amendment that said “curricular materials and education services” would not count as enrollment incentives. The amendment was approved with almost no discussion. Assuming the terms are defined broadly, that would get Tech Trep off the hook.

Last week, however, a pair of homeschool parents from Zionsville called attention to the legislation at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting. Kylene and Brian Varner, the most persistnt critics of Tech Trep, gave legislators a 24-page printout of purchases that Tech Trep approved, including min-greenhouses, gym memberships, video subscriptions, Lego sets and historically themed $100 dolls.

Sen. Ryan Mishler, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, seemed surprised. “They’re basically buying students, to come to their school, to jack their enrollment up,” he said.

Kylene Varner warned that Tech Trep, a privately held company, will look to expand, and it will be joined by others who see Indiana’s choice-friendly policies as an invitation to set up novel and profitable schools. Altogether, they will divert state funding from public schools.

Recently, a woman posted to an Indiana homeschoolers’ Facebook page that she was helping launch a “charter school for home educating families” that sounded a lot like Tech Trep.

“They are the first here in the state,” Kylene Varner said of Tech Trep. “They won’t be the last.”

Here’s the problem: Indiana’s Republican legislative supermajority has embraced a philosophy that state school funding should “follow the child” regardless of where the child goes. They have created a generous voucher program that pays private-school tuition for even high-income parents. They are setting up Education Savings Accounts to pay for a third-party services for children with disabilities.

Is it any wonder that ambitious entrepreneurs like Tech Trep – and small, rural school districts like Cloverdale – see school choice in Indiana as a financial opportunity?

House Bill 1093 is on the calendar for second reading and possible amendments in the Indiana Senate today. It will be interesting to see if senators will do anything to strengthen the bill.

1 thought on “Homeschool ‘bridge’ program works to keep funding

  1. Pingback: Session could have been worse for education | School Matters

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