Decision time

Indiana officials opt to punish Hoosier Academy Virtual and let it stay open. They told the long-failing school to do better. Again.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education discussed Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School at its meeting today, as well as at the beginning of the year (pictured).

After two years of debate, Hoosier Virtual Academy Charter School escaped closure by Indiana education officials on Wednesday but was penalized with a reduction in fees to authorizer Ball State University and a cap on enrollment.

Except for siblings of current students, the Indiana State Board of Education voted to freeze the school’s enrollment immediately. The board also approved a reduction in the fee that Ball State can accept, cutting it from 3 percent to 1 percent of Hoosier Academy’s state funding. The school is operated by for-profit K12 Inc.

The school — among the largest online providers in Indiana — has dealt with years of low test scores and F grades from the state, which triggered its first state board hearing in March of 2015. This decision has been a long time coming — a fact that didn’t escape state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who said action needed to happen much earlier. She also said the state should reconsider requirements for how involved authorizers need to be.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’re at this point where we’re having to make this type of decision,” McCormick said. “The authorizer should have gotten aggressive very early and made a decision one way or the other so the state board wouldn’t have been in this situation.”

Read: The broken promise of online schools

Wednesday marked the fourth board appearance in two years for the school. Over that time, the school has continued to receive F grades from the state, admit students and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ball State to authorize it.

The tone of the discussion overall was far more tense and contentious than prior hearings. State board members challenged Hoosier Academy administrators, as well as representatives from K12 and Ball State, to justify why improvement was taking so long and why conversations about improvement seemed to be in such early stages.

Last year, the university collected about $450,000 for overseeing Hoosier Academy, an amount determined by school enrollment. According to the most recent information available, 2,850 students across Indiana currently attend Hoosier Academy Virtual, down from the 3,300 reported by the state earlier this year. The network as a whole, which includes two other virtual and hybrid schools, enrolls about 1,000 additional kids.

One of the biggest concerns among board members was that the school’s curriculum, furnished primarily by K12, is not fully aligned to Indiana’s academic standards. Stuart Udell, CEO of K12 Inc., said Indiana’s changing state academic standards has made it difficult to ensure everything matches up correctly.

“We’ve had a lot of change nationally,” Udell said. “We’ve been working judiciously since we’ve been here on filling in the gaps.”

Yet Cari Whicker and other board members, including McCormick, pointed out that Indiana teachers at every school have been expected to adjust to the many changes in standards and state tests.

“I don’t have the luxury of saying there’s been a lot of change and my grades are not my grades,” said Whicker, a sixth-grade public school teacher in Huntington. “Every teacher in the state of Indiana had to adapt.”

Virtual school leaders argue their poor performance is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently switch schools, and come to school far behind grade level. In fact, every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 received an F grade, and most have fewer students passing ISTEP than their traditional counterparts.

K12 officials said a new Indiana law passed this year that would allow virtual charter schools to expel students for low participation would make a difference. Currently, virtual schools can’t force students to attend. But it’s hard to see how that allows new flexibility. According to WFYI Public Media, Hoosier Virtual expelled more than 800 students in the past three years.

Although many parents and students traveled to the meeting in Evansville to speak passionately about their positive experiences with the school, Board member Gordon Hendry said it was important to note that that’s not the case for most Hoosier Academy students.

“There’s a whole heck of a lot of students where it’s not working, and the state is spending a ton of money on failure,” Hendry said. “It is on Ball State, but it’s also on K12. They are running the school.”

Ball State University is required to come back to the board next June to ask about renewing the school’s charter. Board members agreed they wanted to see major changes at that point.

“A year from now if there isn’t dramatic change, I’m going to have a pretty different position,” Hendry said.

 

Indiana online schools

Indiana online charter schools face scrutiny at Congressional committee hearing

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

The chronic low performance of Indiana’s virtual charter schools captured national attention Wednesday in a Congressional committee hearing on the value of charter schools.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, criticized the failed promises of online charter schools across the country, citing their low graduation rates and lack of instructional supports — and she called out Indiana’s lowest-performing online school by name.

Indiana “had Indiana Virtual School that graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state,” Bonamici said.

She also referenced a Chalkbeat story about prominent Republican lawmakers calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of online schools.

Her criticism was in stark contrast to testimony minutes earlier from Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican who praised charter schools for creating more opportunities and lifting academic achievement. He touted Indiana’s charter school laws as a model for other states, though the national reports he referenced have also noted Indiana’s blind spots when it comes to online charter schools.

But Bonamici said advocates lauded charter schools while ignoring the problems of online charter schools. As Chalkbeat has reported, four of the state’s virtual charter schools received F ratings from the state in 2017.

“Shouldn’t there be stronger oversight to make sure these schools are actually serving students, rather than focusing on churning profits?” she asked.

A Chalkbeat investigation highlighted how Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, hired few teachers, and entered into contracts with the school founder’s for-profit company — while collecting tens of millions of dollars in state funding.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said states should better regulate virtual charter schools because of their chronic academic problems, but she still defended online schools, which attract students who might not thrive in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

“You don’t want to completely get rid of them, because for some students, these are the only choices available to them,” Rees said.

Indiana online schools

4 takeaways from Indiana’s first review of its troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: PeopleImages/Getty

At its inaugural meeting Tuesday, a group of Indiana State Board of Education members puzzled over how far they could go to try to fix the many problems facing the state’s virtual charter schools — and it turns out, they have more power than they might have thought.

Tim Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, said the committee — and by extension, the full state board — can explore whatever policy areas it wishes.

“The only restriction on this is the board’s imagination,” Schultz said.

That may come as a surprise to some onlookers, since state officials have created few regulations governing virtual charter schools that receive millions in taxpayer dollars but post disappointing academic results.

Read: In the Wild West of virtual learning, an Indiana charter school is opening in an unlikely place — a farm

The only board-drafted rules in place, written in 2010 in the early days of online charter schools, mostly contained definitions and guidance on counting students for funding purposes. It amounted to two printed pages, in contrast to the dozens of pages the board has devoted to other issues such as A-F accountability grades and dropout recovery, said Gordon Hendry, a state board member and the chairman of the committee looking into online charter schools.

So it is clear, Hendry said, that policymakers have more work to do.

One area where the board might need some help from lawmakers is state funding. The board can’t unilaterally decide to change how much money virtual charter schools get per student, for example, since that is specified in the state’s school funding formula.

A critical area to watch will be in what — if anything — the state board can do to address how virtual charter schools are overseen, which lawmakers attempted to take on unsuccessfully earlier this year.

Here are four takeaways from the group’s discussion:

Indiana is not the only state struggling to shore up online charter schools — but other states have made more progress

Schultz presented numerous examples of possible policy changes from other states that Indiana could adopt or use as a jumping-off point. For example, Colorado and Florida more closely track how much students are participating in their online work and how often they are attending online classes.

Minnesota even requires written parental approval for a student to enroll in a virtual program, Schultz said. That move could make it easier for schools to engage with parents right off the bat, and help them understand more about what virtual learning requires and how it differs from a traditional school.

“Many states are pursuing a much more active involvement on the front end,” Schultz said. “It’s not uniform across the board, but a number of states have now taken the position that enrollment does not occur until a student has gone through orientation, or some form of that.”

Schultz also pointed to how Florida requires virtual charter schools provide computer equipment for students poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. In New Mexico, he said, students get help accessing assistive technology, which are devices or tools that can make using computers easier for students with special needs.

In South Carolina, students are required to have 25 percent of their instruction be taught live, while other states put limits on how high student-to-teacher ratios can reach.

All of these steps could improve student performance at Indiana’s virtual charter schools, where more than 13,000 student attend school, state board staff said. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school in the state received an F grade from the state, and despite small improvements from the prior year, most schools had fewer students passing English and math exams than the state average.

“We’re not alone in this,” Schultz said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Indiana doesn’t have rules for virtual charter schools on even some of the basic issues

Board members were surprised to learn online schools lack regulations around teachers. Indiana has no limits — for virtual charter schools or any other schools, for that matter — on how large class sizes can be or on how many teachers schools must hire. That means student-to-teacher ratios can vary widely.

The state also hasn’t clarified, specifically in regards to virtual schools, whether teachers have to be Indiana residents on top of having an Indiana teaching license.

“I just am shocked that we have questions about these things,” said board member Cari Whicker.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

On average across the U.S., public schools tend to have one teacher for every 16 students, while virtual schools have one teacher for every 45, as reported by the National Education Policy Center.

In Indiana, virtual charter schools’ ratios run the gamut, according to 2017 data from the state presented Tuesday, but averaged at about one teacher for every 60 students. Here’s how it broke down in specific schools:

  • Indiana Connections Academy: One teacher for every 29 students
  • Insight School of Indiana: One teacher for every 41 students
  • Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School: One teacher for every 49 students
  • Indiana Virtual School: One teacher for every 123 students

Students who tend to enroll in virtual charter schools need a lot more support across the board

Ron Sandlin, the state board’s director of school performance and transformation, pointed out that Indiana’s virtual charter school students typically spend less than two years in an online school, and when they get there, they’ve usually already spent several years in high school.

So it’s not just incumbent on virtual schools to improve of student performance — the state needs to ensure students have the support they need before they get there, too.

Falling behind grade level before transferring to an online school could be one reason why the schools’ state test scores and graduation rates are particularly low. If students come in behind grade level and are very transient, it doesn’t set them up to do well on tests or finish school on time.

Next steps: Data, data, and more data

Hendry, Whicker, and the third committee member, Maryanne McMahon all had areas they wanted to explore as the committee continues to meet monthly.

Hendry said he’d like more information on virtual education programs that aren’t charter schools. That could include a rural district that, as Chalkbeat reported, is pulling in hundreds of students from across the state with its new online program.

Whicker said she wanted more information from authorizers, the entities that oversee virtual charter schools.

“What it sounds like is in Indiana, they have the freedom to set their own policies,” Whicker said. She was curious about what current authorizers were doing and how they make decisions on how to monitor schools.

And McMahon said she’s interested in seeing success stories: Where is virtual education working?

All agreed there was still a lot of work to do. Board member David Freitas, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting, said policymakers have a big responsibility ahead of them.

“It’s sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant — at this point there are so many issues,” he said. “Where do we start?”