Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

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

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”

Indiana online schools

Facing state scrutiny, Indiana charter school steps back from virtual plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Agriculture and Technology School's farm campus is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office in Morgan County.

An Indiana charter school is backing off its unconventional plan to open a statewide virtual school with a farm campus following scrutiny from state officials over its oversight model.

In May, a Chalkbeat investigation examined concerns about whether Indiana Agriculture and Technology School’s plan to be overseen by a school district exploited a loophole in state law.

Following the investigation, the Indiana State Board of Education told Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools in an email exchange obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request that only the state charter board or a university could authorize a statewide virtual charter school.

Now, a month before it is set to open, the school says it will instead incorporate more in-person learning so it can launch as a brick-and-mortar charter school, not a virtual school.

“After examining our program it was clear to all parties that we do not meet the technical definition of a virtual school,” said Allan Sutherlin, the school’s founder and board president, in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Sutherlin did not immediately respond to questions about how students recruited from across the state will participate in in-person lessons and access the farm campus.

When asked about the oversight issue in March, state board officials told Chalkbeat that they didn’t have the authority to review charter contracts. Indiana law doesn’t specifically prohibit or allow districts to oversee statewide virtual schools, but lawmakers say districts were not intended to have that power.

But in a May 31 letter, Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board, told the school district to “address this issue as quickly as possible as failure to do so violates Indiana law.”

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Timothy Edsell contended the district was in compliance with the law, disputing the state board’s interpretation.

He said the district is allowed to authorize the school because the school leases land within the district’s boundaries. He also argued that the portion of state law that addresses who can authorize virtual charter schools isn’t restrictive — it says virtual charters “may” apply with a statewide authorizer, Edsell said, not that they “shall” or “must.”

“There is legal authority to support our collective actions and all legal requirements have been followed,” Edsell wrote in a follow-up letter to state board staff.

But then, on June 22, the agriculture school changed course. Despite originally applying for its charter as a “statewide virtual school,” it informed the state that the school would instead be opening as a brick-and-mortar charter school with a so-called “blended-learning” model.

The school plans to mix online instruction and in-person visits to regional sites and the school’s farm campus in southern Indiana, according to documents Marsh provided to the state. That will include weekly in-person learning sessions at the farm campus or elsewhere, monthly farm campus visits, dual credit opportunities with the Central 9 Career Center and Ivy Tech Community College, and internships and work-based learning with local partners.

The move was a significant change from the school’s original plans. Although school officials emphasized hands-on experiences students would receive, they told Chalkbeat earlier this year that the farm visits weren’t mandatory and would be occasional. Through social media marketing, the school has advertised itself for months as a “real virtual school.”

A Facebook ad for Indiana Agriculture and Technology School from July 2.

And in March, Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director, confirmed with the Indiana Department of Education that the school was virtual.

Even with the change in plans, the school says 49 percent of a student’s schooling will occur online. The state defines a virtual charter school as providing more than 50 percent of its instruction online.

As a traditional charter school, the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is also now entitled to an increase in state funding — full state tuition support instead of the 90 percent virtual charter schools receive. The school has so far enrolled about 100 students.

It’s unclear why the school decided to make the change to blended-learning when it did. But on June 29, after the school confirmed its new model with the state, Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, told district superintendent Edsell that the school’s charter would have been invalid if it had remained a virtual school.

Sutherlin and Marsh declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

In addressing the school’s new model, Schultz wrote that the district “is responsible for ensuring that every charter school it authorizes is complying with all applicable federal and state laws.”

Schultz wrote that the state board “has no mechanism to independently verify” that the school is operating according to its new plan. The Indiana Department of Education also does not monitor whether charter schools follow rules set by their authorizers or the state, a spokeswoman said.

State Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman, said the state board’s review showed “due diligence.” He also said the law would likely have to be clarified.

“I was concerned and made it very clear that I thought a local school corporation could not authorize a statewide virtual (school), so I’m glad that they’re now in compliance,” Behning said. “My guess is there will be changes to our virtual charter law anyway in terms of some different parameters we might put in, so we’ll hopefully clean that up at the same time.”

Virtual charter schools have drawn scrutiny in both Indiana and Washington, D.C. A state board committee met for the first time last month to explore changes that could be made to state law to improve the schools, which have records of poor academic performance in Indiana. Additionally, lawmakers at a Congressional committee hearing later that same week raised questions about the schools.

Find more coverage of Indiana’s online schools.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

To reinvent career education, these Indiana districts are making up their own rules

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems. Decatur is one of seven districts in a new state initiative aimed at preparing kids for careers.

An Indianapolis school district will get more flexibility under a new state initiative that aims to change how students learn and prepare for jobs.

Decatur Township will join six other districts in a coalition that allows them to bypass certain state rules so students get more practical experience and share ideas to form more work-based study opportunities with local employers. The coalition was created by a law passed this year that is based on model law from one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The main rules that the coalition districts are looking for extra latitude on include allowing students to waive classes, such as Algebra 2, so they can gain work experience that might lead to a job or industry credential. The coalition would also like extra flexibility with teacher licensure so they can bring into the classroom experts in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

Read: Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

Decatur Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said the coalition is working to put some of the new plans and programs in place for next school year. Being part of this collaborative group actively sharing ideas, he said, might help them stretch their resources and find new ways to give students more freedom to figure out their post-high school plans.

“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this because,’ it’s more of a, ‘Why can’t we do this? How do we get around these obstacles’?” Prusiecki said.

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the coalition, called the “Coalition of Continuous Improvement School Districts,” the go-ahead to start planning at its meeting earlier this month. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said this effort goes beyond just Indiana, as extending opportunities for career and technical education is becoming increasingly popular nationwide.

“Work-based study is definitely a buzz word around the country,” Behning told state board members. “How do we make school, and develop those skills in students, where everyone is not necessarily going to get a baccalaureate degree, but certainly can come out of school with a skill that will provide them employment outside of K-12.”

Earlier this year, when lawmakers were debating the bill, several Hoosier educators testified that courses like Algebra 2, which lawmakers made a requirement for graduation in 2007, interfere with students pursuing other opportunities — particularly if they are not interested in earning a four-year college degree.

Some schools, such as Noblesville High School, have already created Algebra 2 alternatives that some educators say are just as rigorous as the course, but have more real-world applications. Batesville, one of the districts that championed the original legislation, has also already created the kinds of local business partnerships that Prusiecki said he and other coalition members are looking to as examples.

Prusiecki said students would still have to follow the state’s new graduation pathways requirements. But with the freedom the coalition allows, they could substitute traditional courses in math or science with experiences in internships that could lead to a career.

“How do we connect (students) with these partnerships and relationships with businesses so we can get them high-wage, high-demand jobs?” Prusiecki said.

The coalition is also requesting the ability to create its own district teacher licenses. The licenses don’t have to meet the usual accreditation requirements from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Teachers would still have to follow rules for criminal background checks, but the coalition members hope the licenses would have fewer requirements and let more people teach classes in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

“The current ways (to be licensed) just seem to be a little cumbersome,” Prusiecki said. “This coalition is just trying to make opening those doors a lot wider so we can get things done possibly more efficiently, faster, and even possibly on a larger scale.”

But the state already has a workplace specialist permit, which can be earned by a person with experience in skilled trades or areas relevant to classes in a career center or a high school career and technical education program. It doesn’t require a college degree, but it does require applicants to pass a training and a basic skills exam. The coalition district law waives those rules and others for prospective educators.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s confused by the licensure waiver, which was not discussed during the state board meeting earlier this month or during the legislative session.

“I’m not going to pass a lot of judgement until I know more, but I need to hear why they need a different path that isn’t already available,” Meredith said. “There’s already such flexibility, it’s not super rigid with a workplace specialist.”

The coalition would still require that teachers be allowed to negotiate pay and benefits through their union.

The coalition districts still need the state to sign off on specific plans for what class pathways, teacher license options, or credential partnerships and opportunities they want to offer.

There’s an accountability piece to the coalition as well, Behning said, that gives districts more flexibility if they can show their efforts are leading to students getting jobs. Each year, the coalition must make a report to lawmakers on teacher qualifications and how the coalition affects certain metrics, such as graduation rate. Those metrics also have to include how much coalition work is costing each district, what work-based study opportunities students get from employer partners, and whether students are ultimately employed by partner organizations full-time.

Prusiecki did not want to reveal who the district is considering partnering with, but those agreements are in the works, and plans will need to be made quickly before the next school year.

“There’s a lot of risk-taking in this, and the piece of it, too, is that we’re putting a spotlight on ourselves as a school district,” Prusiecki said. “We’re willing to step out there and take those risks so we can help our communities.”