A legislator, a university and school vouchers

No one has done more than Rep. Bob Behning to shape Indiana’s wide-open system of school choice, including what’s arguably the most generous private-school voucher program in the country. Now Behning’s employer is tapping into that system as it launches an online private school.

Marian University Preperatory Academy will open in the fall of 2022, according to a news release from Marian University, a private, Catholic institution in Indianapolis. The school, described as “flexible” and “faith-focused,” will operate in a partnership with for-profit Stride Inc.

Tuition will be $9,500 a year for the school’s hybrid program, which will include in-person and online instruction; and $7,500 for its fully virtual program. The school’s FAQ section provides guidance for applying for Indiana’s voucher program, which can help pay tuition for families at most income levels.

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Virtual charter school case in court this week

A Hamilton County court hearing this week may determine whether Indiana taxpayers have a chance to recover $154 million from two virtual charter schools and their leaders and business partners.

The hearing, set for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before Hamilton Superior Court Judge Michael Casati, concerns motions to dismiss a lawsuit to recover charter school funds that were allegedly obtained by fraud or improperly spent.

Attorney General Todd Rokita filed the suit in July 2021 on behalf of the state. Defendants include the schools — Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy — and several of their officers and employees. Also named are businesses that were affiliated with the schools.

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Enrollment held steady in pandemic year

Indiana public schools saw their enrollment decline a year ago as families wrestled with the idea of sending their kids to school in a pandemic. But once students enrolled, most of them stayed put, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Schools in Indiana count their students twice each academic year, once in September and again in February. In 2021, enrollment in public schools dropped by just 0.5% between fall and spring.

There was speculation that families would bail on public schools last year, either because of worries about COVID-19 or because of frustration as districts shifted among in-person, hybrid and remote learning. That doesn’t seem to have happened, according to the data.

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More than meets the eye in graduation rates

I’m no fan of charter schools, but Indiana data showing that only 40% of their students graduate from high school are arguably misleading. The data are correct, but the category includes more than what we typically think of as charter schools: i.e., schools that resemble public schools but are privately operated.

It includes 20 or so adult high schools, which are designed to help older students and dropouts make up missing credits and earn a degree. Dominated by at least 15 Goodwill Excel Centers, those schools tend to enroll students who are behind on credits. Their 2019 “cohort” or on-time graduation rate was 18.2%.

It also includes virtual charter schools, which seem to have a lousy record for graduation rates, test scores and nearly everything else. The overall graduation rate for virtual schools and blended schools, which combine online and classroom learning, was 32.6%.

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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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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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School lost students but not funding

State Rep. Vernon Smith made a good point Thursday when the Indiana House was discussing legislation to regulate virtual charter schools. The Gary Democrat suggested state funding for the schools should be based on how many students they enroll throughout the school year, not just in the fall.

Rep. Vernon Smith

Rep. Vernon Smith

Indiana schools receive state funding according to the number of students they enroll on a designated count day in September. If students leave after that day, the schools keep the money but no longer incur the cost of serving the students. And that happens a lot – especially at some of the virtual schools.

We know this because the Indiana Department of Education has schools report their enrollment on a second count day in February. The spring semester count doesn’t affect funding; it’s for information purposes only.

In the 2017-18 school year, one online charter school, Indiana Virtual School, reported enrollment of 3,381 students in the fall but only 1,836 students in the spring. That’s a loss of 46 percent of its students.

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Legislators dealing with virtual charter schools

It should be a no-brainer for Indiana lawmakers to rein in abuses by low-performing virtual charter schools. But there are few sure things in the General Assembly.

As Chalkbeat Indiana reported, virtual charter schools have spent heavily in recent years to lobby legislators. They have also contributed generously to political campaigns. They will be heard.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

Regulation is needed because virtual charter schools, which provide all or most of their instruction online, have some of the worst academic performance in the state. Most have consistently received Fs in the state’s school grading system, and their test scores and graduation rates tend to be low.

A Chalkbeat investigation found questionable business practices at one such school, Indiana Virtual School. Its more recently opened sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, had a 2018 graduation rate of 2.2 percent. Yet it didn’t receive a school grade because too few of its tenth-graders took required tests – even though, with over 6,000 students, it is the largest school in the state.

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Regulations proposed for virtual schools

New accountability could be coming to Indiana’s online K-12 schools. A State Board of Education committee is recommending stricter oversight, limits on growth and class size and other measures targeting “virtual schools,” most of which are charter schools.

The board will consider the proposals today. Most would require action by the Indiana General Assembly, which begins its 2019 session in January.

The committee on virtual schools was created in response to low tests scores and other issues at virtual charter schools. In one example, a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found that Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, had a student-teacher ratio of over 200-to-1 and paid millions of dollars in rent and management fees to a business run by its founder. Continue reading

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