online learning

Hoosier Academy Virtual highlights challenges in third hearing, but board says it still needs more information to make a decision.

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).

Almost two years and three state hearings later, it’s still not clear what action, if any, Indiana education officials will take regarding the long-struggling Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School.

What Indiana State Board of Education members do know is that they want even more information.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

“To move forward … we are going to really have to deep dive into what is the model, what is working well,” said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “There are a lot of big decisions to be made before that time comes.”

The online school received its sixth F from the state last month, after it was asked in 2015 by the Indiana State Board of Education to figure out a plan to improve. Hoosier Academy officials presented their plan in August — but they also came back with the news that they had opened the new Insight School of Indiana, which they said could better serve students who are struggling.

The purpose of the Insight school wasn’t to “let the school avoid accountability,” said Bob Marra, the executive director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University, the group that oversees Hoosier Academies. “It was actually my intention to give more transparency and clarity” around how students were doing, he said.

But board members didn’t necessarily agree with Marra. Steve Yager asked why a new school was even needed when the Hoosier Academy Virtual school could have been altered to provide more support for kids who needed it.

“My concern still remains, and it is that when you start treading new water, you don’t know what’s beneath the surface,” Yager said. “We’ve got to be very, very careful as to the precedent we’re setting.”

Hoosier Academy leaders, as well as leaders of other state virtual schools, have raised the idea that their circumstances should net them some leeway in accountability. Online schools typically face high student turnover, low graduation rates and students coming to school far behind their peers.

In Wednesday’s presentation, Marra pointed to numerous data points that suggest the school would have a much better graduation rate, for example, if students who were credit deficient or those who had left the school but were still counted in the cohort, weren’t counted.

Cynthia Roach, director of testing and accountability for the state board, said there have been conversations about other accountability models that might better fit schools like Damar Charter Academy, which specifically serves students with some of the most severe learning and physical disabilities, or residential treatment facilities that also educate kids, but those are ongoing.

Otherwise, Roach said, the state’s new A-F model should essentially work for everyone else. She didn’t think the difficulties Hoosier Academy says it’s facing qualify them for an A-F break. Critics of alternate accountability for virtual schools say traditional schools, particularly urban schools, see many of the same challenges.

“With the way we’ve got the model currently set up, even if (schools) are not passing (ISTEP), they should be growing those kids,” Roach said. “I have no real issue holding them to the same standards.”

Indiana only has one grading system. Even if schools get designated as alternative schools and have a mission to serve specific groups of kids, they are either counted along with another district school or get a grade of their own.

Insight School of Indiana won’t test students until this year, which means results and a letter grade won’t be available for almost a year. At Hoosier Virtual, even test score growth data is low, at what could be considered a D, while test passing rates could be considered an F.

Opening up separate schools to give extra services is something K12, the school’s management company, has done in other states, including Arizona and Ohio, said John Marske, president of Hoosier Academies’ board of directors.

“Rather than recreate the wheel, we’re using a model that is working in other states,” Marske said.

But it’s not clear it’s even working in those states.

In Arizona, the Insight Academy is considered an “alternative school” by the state, which means it serves an at-risk population, including students who are behind, those with disruptive behavior and those in the juvenile justice system.

Even so, the school received a C grade for 2014, the most recent data available from the Arizona Department of Education. Arizona Virtual Academy got a B in 2014. The Ohio Insight Academy doesn’t have an overall grade, but for all the “component” grades, in areas such as achievement, test score growth and graduation rate, the school received Fs. Ohio Virtual Academy received a D, F and F in those areas.

Hoosier Academy Virtual is set to come back to the board in this spring. Marra said there won’t be any new test scores yet, but they’ll continue discussion and go over more information. McCormick, like Yager, said she worries that the board’s process dealing with Hoosier Academies could set a precedent, and she doesn’t want other schools to think they’re getting special treatment.

“It’s going to be a difficult decision because obviously this is not an overnight issue — we don’t want to put students in a bad situation,” McCormick said. Virtual charter schools are “not traditional public schools, but they are public schools, so we do need to watch that. I think that’s our responsibility as a department, and I think that’s our responsibility as a state board of education.”

action steps

Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the Indiana Virtual School’s “unsatisfactory” performance — which includes two years of F grades, low ISTEP scores and high student-teacher ratio — requires policymakers to get involved.

In October, Chalkbeat reported that Indiana Virtual School, one of the state’s largest online charter schools, had received more than $20 million from the state while graduating about 61 students. And between at least 2011 and 2015, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent.

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

“The state shouldn’t allow schools that have that poor of performance to continue,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat in a one-on-one interview. “I look forward over this next year, with the state board of education, to help put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance. Poor performance would be putting it lightly.”

Holcomb is not alone in calling for Indiana to address the poor academic track records of statewide online charter schools, even though Indiana has long embraced charter schools and school choice.

Former state schools chief Glenda Ritz said virtual schools aren’t a sufficient alternative to traditional schools. State board member Tony Walker said he was shocked by Indiana Virtual’s low number of teachers, while The Mind Trust’s David Harris thinks the state should place a renewed focus on the quality of authorizers, the groups that oversee charters in Indiana. Indiana Virtual is one of the few schools in the state to be overseen by a public school district, Daleville Schools, a small rural district near Muncie.

Also on Thursday, the Indiana State Teachers Association called for a moratorium on virtual charter school growth as well as a funding formula fix based on academic progress, not enrollment. ISTA also asked more broadly for more scrutiny of charter school finances and for the state education department to “approve and monitor a plan to prevent financial and enrollment fraud, waste and abuse.”

Indiana Virtual and its sister school that opened this year, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, together enroll 6,332 students. Across the state, more than 12,000 students are enrolled in online charters, most of which earned F grades this year. Two other major online charters, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy, also opened new schools in the past year or so.

Holcomb said he understands it can take authorizers time to make changes to address poor academics in the schools they oversee, but children only have so many years to spare.

At this point, Holcomb said he doesn’t see a need just yet for legislation addressing online schools, although he wouldn’t rule it out. He said his team has communicated with the state board that this area needs “immediate attention and action.” It’s not yet clear what measures they want to introduce, or how much authority the state board has to change charter school rules, but he indicated authorizing could be on the list.

Read: Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

“This next year we’ll be looking at all these issues to say how can we best give students options that fit their needs while at the same time (give) parents and taxpayers confidence that these options are worthy,” Holcomb said. “I think the state board, in this instance, can right the ship.”

 

policy talk

Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Daleville Public Schools, a small district located near Muncie, now oversees two statewide online charter schools.

The best way to fix a troubled charter school isn’t to go after the school, lawmakers and policymakers say — start with the authorizer.

A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that the school district charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has taken a hands-off approach that seems to meet the low expectations for authorizers in Indiana’s charter law, but the approach isn’t paying off when it comes to meeting the needs of the school’s students.

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

In the Hoosier state, authorizers — which can include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. Even then, there’s no guarantee that a school would close or that an authorizer would be stripped of its privileges to oversee schools. Many states have grappled with how to approve the best authorizers who will operate good schools, and even though Indiana’s policy has been held up as a national model, it has gaps.

“You have authorizers that aren’t behaving appropriately, whether it be malicious or not,” said James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, one of the state’s charter authorizers. “Currently, consequences only come in when a school performs badly because our laws don’t contemplate legal violations.”

Control has been at the crux the debate — how much should an authorizer get involved in the daily affairs of charter schools, and how much should the state intervene if an authorizer veers off course? In an atmosphere where free market politics encourage experimentation, authorizers are given broad reign.

But in Indiana, authorizers are often paid by the schools they oversee, and there’s not much incentive to close them. David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, said authorizers not only shouldn’t get authorizing fees from schools, but they also need to be heavily screened upfront to make sure they can do the work — especially if they are going to authorize virtual schools, which tend to have poor track records for student learning.

“The authorizer needs to assess whether it has the capacity to effectively oversee a school,” Harris said. “And if they can’t make the case that they do that well, then they shouldn’t authorize the school in the first place.”

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Oversight of Indiana Virtual School by the small Daleville Community School District has been fairly hands-off by the district’s own admission, and the district was on-track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year. Over its six-year lifespan, the F-rated school has enrolled thousands of students but failed to graduate most of them or hire more than several dozen teachers. But it continues to bring in millions of state dollars. Daleville this summer began piloting a new evaluation tool that it thinks can help improve Indiana Virtual.

Since 2011, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, has charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent, an agreement Daleville said it was unaware of. Stoughton has also led the school’s growth. In September, he opened a second statewide virtual school, also chartered by Daleville.

The variety of issues at Indiana Virtual School underscore a wider need to re-examine how the state holds charter school authorizers accountable for their schools.

“There’s a need to have virtual and online platforms available for certain students,” said state board member Tony Walker. “That being said, there are some problems I think with our model that I think are highlighted by this situation … there was a failure of the authorizer to keep proper monitoring and accountability.”

Ultimately, as Indiana lawmakers prepare to begin the 2018 legislative session in January, they can change the law, but it’s hard to say if they will. And though the State Board of Education has the authority to change education policy, it’s unclear how they could affect existing laws or policy around authorizing. At the very least, someone should be paying attention, said Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools.

“There’s no doubt that many of these online schools are disasters,” Petrilli said. “We have now seen in many states both terrible outcomes, but also financial scandals. And so there’s no doubt that policymakers have to figure out a better approach to regulating these entities.”

There are a number of steps Indiana could take to close gaps that allow chronically underperforming schools or subpar authorizers to continue. Here are some options:

Re-evaluate current authorizers to make sure they are up to the state’s standards.

In addition to other authorizing changes made in 2011 and 2013, Indiana created stricter requirements to weed out unfit authorizers in 2015. The move was widely praised — that year and in 2016, the state’s policies earned a top ranking from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But when the law changed, existing authorizers, including Daleville, were grandfathered in and didn’t have to go through the new, more rigorous screening through the Indiana State Board of Education. School districts that applied were automatically approved and didn’t need to complete the rest of the screening.

There’s no definitive consensus about what good authorizing looks like, partially because charter advocates have long lobbied for fewer restrictions. So although Indiana requires that all nine of its authorizers adopt best practices, such as those developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, state charter law lays out no way to enforce it. (Compared to the association’s general guidelines, those on virtual charter schools are much more stringent.)

State Board spokesman Josh Gillespie said only the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United school district has applied to be an authorizer since the rule change, a 1,828-student district about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. The district doesn’t appear to charter any schools at this time.

If the state wanted to send a message that it valued high quality authorizers, it could walk back the grandfathering provision.

Stop allowing authorizers to get paid by the schools they oversee.

Under current law, charter authorizers can collect up 3 percent of a school’s state funding as payment for monitoring.

Authorizers should have the ability to get financial support for their work, sources told Chalkbeat, but that support shouldn’t come from schools themselves. Tony Walker, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education representing Northwest Indiana, said he worries about the fees in particular when it comes to school district authorizers that might already be struggling financially compared to larger state organizations and universities.

“There are inherent conflicts that arise when (a district) is getting chartering fees from the school and they desperately need the money,” Walker said. “I don’t think they have the same resources that Ball State and the (Indiana Charter School Board) have in terms of monitoring and providing support.”

One alternative is that the state could budget to support all authorizers directly. If the money isn’t tied to school enrollment, it could help reduce the incentive to accrue students beyond what a school can actually support.

“The fee is a bad idea,” Harris said. “It creates an incentive to charter schools that shouldn’t be chartered because the authorizer generates revenue from that.”

Keep authorizers and virtual charter operators from opening additional schools or enrolling students if current ones have been consistently low-performing.

Restricting how virtual schools gain students and replicate could make sense even in a state that has long supported online education.

Currently, public charter schools need four years of F grades before the state board can cap enrollment, reduce authorizer fees or close the school.

But there’s already precedent set in Indiana law for how this system could improve to address troubled schools more quickly and automatically. Lawmakers could take a cue from the state’s voucher program.

If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students. Last year the law was tweaked to allow schools to appeal that decision, but the state board can still deny such a request.

Indiana Virtual School, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy — all statewide, full-time online charter schools with consecutive years of F grades — have quietly opened new schools within the past year or so.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to allow low-performing schools to open new schools.

“I think virtual schools should succeed or not be opened,” Kruse said. “So if they can’t get their act together, I think they ought to decide to just close down their schools … If they’re failing with what they’re doing now, why should we allow them to open up more failing schools?”