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Charter schools set for online trial run

– These days, Hoosiers use computers for myriad tasks – paying bills, buying presents, filing taxes, renting movies and even working from home.

And now a few hundred Indiana schoolchildren will get the chance this fall to go to school from the comfort of their own home under a new pilot program for virtual charter schools.

Legislators lifted a two-year moratorium on the schools when they inserted the pilot into the state budget in late June.

“Different kids find themselves in different circumstances in life and having a virtual charter school option is important,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. “If a student gets sick or has a disability, we don’t want them to fall behind. Also, sometimes a classroom holds a high achiever back.

“To tailor a curriculum around the individual kid is better for the child. Everyone doesn’t fall into the same categories. Flexibility is good.”

But others are concerned that the provision establishing the pilot program lacks details, especially about current and future costs.

“It was force-fed to the General Assembly, a hostile injection into the education system instead of a cooperative process,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee. “We needed to do it the right way, to have a real debate with clear regulations and accountability.”

Several bills on the topic failed during the regular legislative session, and the provision was placed into the state budget during last-minute negotiations.

To start slowly, lawmakers approved a pilot that would help 200 kids in the upcoming school year and 500 children in the 2010-11 school year. And it’s supposed to focus on students who have medical disabilities or circumstances that prevent them from attending traditional public schools.

By definition, a virtual charter school is one that provides more than 50 percent of its instruction through long-distance learning, online technologies or computer-based instruction.

There are already two hybrid charter schools that come close to this – the Hoosier Academies in Muncie and Indianapolis – except that more than half of their instruction is face to face with teachers at learning centers. These institutions could likely become full-time virtual charters with ease.

“Today’s society has dictated a different need for children,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said, noting that Indiana has to develop multiple pathways for success. “Virtual charters are one option to do just that.”

Cam Savage, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the provider of the pilot virtual charter school could be announced as early as this week.

He said the program will have open enrollment statewide with a maximum of 200 students to be chosen through a lottery system. It will be completely computer-based, though the grades it will cover are unclear at this point.

The provider of the program will receive funding based on 80 percent of the average statewide basic tuition support per pupil.

The estimated cost is about $3.2 million for the two-year program, but how the program is financed depends on where the children come from.

Legislators included a significant restriction on the student population that could save money.

It says at least 75 percent of the students enrolled in the pilot had to be counted in the public-school enrollment the prior year. This means the state is already funding those students in some school district and the money will simply shift to the new charter school.

But if children who are currently home-schooled enter the program, they will cost the state additional money because those students aren’t covered by state funding now.

“It will be a good curriculum for home-schoolers,” said Sen. Connie Sipes, D-New Albany. “We aren’t paying for them now, so it will cost us more money.”

This additional cost has been a rallying cry against the program for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“The experience in other states is these things grow quickly – $20 million, $30 million,” ISTA lobbyist Dan Clark said. “We had no additional money for full-day kindergarten or remediation, but we started this program without a full vetting of the cost.”

Bennett understands the concern and said that is why he agrees with how the pilot was structured: “it makes sure we’re not creating another financial hardship on the state.”

Lynette Quinn, president of Indiana Families for Public Virtual Schools, discounts the home-school effect, saying many of those families want a Christian-oriented education with flexibility in curriculum that a public school – even a virtual charter school – can’t provide.

She also noted those students would then have to take the state ISTEP+ test.

But Quinn is concerned about the constitutionality of the 75 percent-25 percent split of students, noting Indiana is supposed to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

In general, she thinks the option is good for children with special medical needs, behavioral issues or even children in rural schools who currently have no charter school options in the state. And a number of parents whose children are training for the Olympics have expressed interest, she said.

“It’s an alternative, and it’s not for everyone,” Quinn said. “This is not a threat to the traditional school environment. It’s an enhancement.”

Sipes, a former elementary school principal, isn’t opposed to using the method for a small group of students with special needs but is concerned about broadening it too much.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I just think it’s important for kids to be around other kids,” she said. “Learning to interact with one another, to tolerate differences, is part of going to school. I want kids and people in general to learn how to get along with each other.”

Quinn said there are online technologies that allow students and teachers to do problems together on a “whiteboard,” let teachers to communicate with students verbally and through a chat box and even allow students to talk to each other.

“It’s completely interactive – not just sitting at the computer all day just stuck,” she said. “The computer is just the school bus.”