School closings disrupt lives

Thousands of Indiana K-12 students may be scrambling to find schools just as the 2019-20 school year gets under way. The reason: The charter schools they attended, or in which they were enrolled, are shutting down, sometimes with little or no warning.

The big factor is the pending closure of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which have been under fire for inflating enrollment numbers and for producing low test scores and abysmal graduation rates. Combined, they claimed over 7,000 students last year.

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With charter schools, ‘for-profit’ isn’t the issue

In Indiana, schools called Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy are finally shutting down after officials determined they inflated their enrollment figures by 50%, billing the state for as much as $40 million for students who didn’t enroll or didn’t earn credits.

In California, two businessmen have been charged with conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds and other offenses for a scam that involved opening 19 online schools and funneling $50 million in state education funds to companies that they controlled.

And in Louisiana, nearly half of the senior class at John F. Kennedy High School was found to be ineligible for graduation after officials discovered widespread grade-fixing and other problems.

What do Indiana Virtual School, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, the 19 California schools and John F. Kennedy High School have in common? Continue reading

‘Public hearings’ without the public

Indiana law requires charter school authorizers to conduct a public hearing before they give permission for a new school to open. Did the Indiana Charter School Board follow the law when it authorized the Excel Center that will open this fall in Bloomington?

James Betley, executive director of the Charter School Board, said there were two “community meetings” in 2018 in Bloomington, attended by representatives of business and civic groups, including Judy DeMuth, the superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp.

He said those meetings were “open to the public,” but I can’t find any evidence that the public was told about them. There was nothing about them in the local newspaper, either before or after the fact. If the “public” wasn’t informed, in what sense were they public hearings?

Excel Centers are adult charter high schools operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, a program of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana. The schools are designed for adults who dropped out of school and want to go back and earn enough credits for a high school diploma. At least 15 Excel Centers have opened since 2010 in Indianapolis, Lafayette, Kokomo, Richmond and other cities. Continue reading

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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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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‘Charter schools are public’ claim doesn’t hold up

Seven Oaks Classical School headmaster Stephen Shipp makes several debatable claims in his Herald-Times guest column arguing that charter schools are public schools.

He suggests charter schools are public because they “are judged by the state’s A-F accountability system.” But in Indiana, so are private schools that receive vouchers. He says charter schools are “accountable to an authorizer who can shut them down.” Yes, but that almost never happens. Seven Oaks’ authorizer, Grace College, does not answer to the public.

Shipp claims charter schools are at a disadvantage because they can’t levy property taxes to pay for buildings and transportation. But they don’t have to provide transportation (Seven Oaks doesn’t). And, unlike public schools, charter schools in Indiana receive state funding — soon to be $1,000 per student — for those costs. They also qualify for grants, like the $900,000 recently awarded Seven Oaks.

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McCormick unbound

I don’t think Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has ever been shy about saying what she thinks, but she seems to have become even more outspoken since announcing in October that she won’t seek re-election when her term expires in January 2021.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

She called out legislators on several issues Wednesday in a Bloomington discussion sponsored by the Indiana Coalition of Public Education-Monroe County and the Monroe County Community School Corp.

School funding: McCormick said the school funding increase in the budget that the Indiana House has approved – just over 2 percent each of the next two years – isn’t enough. Low pay and working conditions are creating a severe teacher shortage, she said, and more money is needed. Thirty-five percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

Funding for charter schools: She took issue with a budget provision that doubles grants to charter schools for transportation, buildings and technology to $1,000 per student – at a cost to the state of $77 million over two years. “If we’ve got $77 million,” she said, “let’s put it in the pot for everybody.”

Indiana’s private-school voucher program: McCormick pointed out that the program was sold in 2011 as a way to help poor and minority students stuck in low-performing schools, but it has evolved into something quite different. Fifty-eight percent of voucher students never attended a public school. “Suburban whites are the ones taking advantage of it most,” she said. Continue reading