Virtual schools should be more accountable, not less

Leaders of Indiana’s virtual charter schools say they shouldn’t be evaluated as other schools are, on test scores and graduation rates. That’s not surprising: Their test scores and graduation rates are abysmal.

One the one hand, they may have a point. Schools that deliver instruction online are different from so-called brick-and-mortar schools, and arguably they should be judged by different criteria. But accountability for virtual schools should be stronger, not weaker, than for conventional schools.

These statewide schools enroll over 12,000 students and are funded by Hoosier taxpayers to the tune of $80 million a year. Unlike public schools, they aren’t responsive to elected officials or to local communities that they serve. If the state doesn’t hold them accountable, no one will.

All the virtual charter schools received an F from the state in 2017. How bad was their performance? Continue reading

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Panel to take on virtual charter schools

The State Board of Education’s committee on virtual charter schools will have its first meeting today. It has a formidable task – figuring out how to bring effective oversight to the online schools that have become the fastest-growing education sector in Indiana.

“I think there’s just a real concern about accountability,” said Gordon Hendry, the state board member who will chair the committee. “Virtual charter schools should be accountable for their performance. We spend tens of millions of dollars on them, so we want to make sure the state of Indiana, as well as the parents and students, are getting the very best education possible.”

So far, they don’t seem to be. All four virtual schools that were in operation in 2016-17 received F’s in the state’s school grading system. Test scores and graduation rates were uniformly low, even though virtual schools generally serve less disadvantaged populations than public schools. Critics have referred to the sector as the Wild West for its anything-goes ethos. Continue reading

Online school leaves students behind

I thought I’d heard it all when it came to questionable practices in the name of school choice. But then I read about Indiana Virtual School. After a seven-month investigation, Chalkbeat Indiana revealed how the online charter school has raked in public money while apparently doing little to educate students.

“One of Indiana’s largest high schools ended this past school year with almost 5,000 students, but no desks and no classrooms,” Chalbeat’s Shaina Cavazos writes. “The school also had very few graduates — 61 out of more than 900 seniors graduated last year. What Indiana Virtual School did have: Tens of millions in state dollars due to come its way over the next two years, and a founder whose for-profit company charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school.”

Some highlights:

  • The school had only 21 teachers for 4,682 students at the end of last school year, a ratio of 222 students per teachers.
  • Just 10 percent of its spending went to instruction while 89 percent went to “support services,” according to data provided to the state. It spent just 7 percent on teacher and staff salaries.
  • It paid about $6 million for management services and office space to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company headed until last year by Thomas Stoughton, the school’s founder and leader.

Continue reading