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.
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.
Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.
Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.
In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.
Indiana makes it nearly impossible for students under 18 to drop out of school but easy – extremely easy – for them to withdraw to be homeschooled.
That background could help make sense of the revelation that some high schools may be steering students from dropping out to homeschooling. Chalkbeat Indiana broke the story with an investigation that focused on CSUSA Emmerich Manual, an Indianapolis “turnaround academy.”
Manual reported that 60 students from its 2018 graduating cohort left to homeschool – nearly as many as the 83 students who graduated. Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy interviewed a mom who said she signed papers for her son to drop out, only to learn he had been reported as leaving to homeschool.