When Indiana lifted its moratorium on online charter schools, Rep. Greg Porter, chairman of the House Education Committee, complained the decision was “a hostile injection into the education system instead of a cooperative process.”
“We needed to do it the right way, to have a real debate with clear regulations and accountability,” said the Indianapolis Democrat in 2009.
Nearly a decade later, virtual charter schools represent the very worst of Indiana's public education system, with the state's three online schools finishing in the bottom 3 percent statewide for test improvement. Each received F's under the most recent round of grades assigned by the state. Graduation rates are abysmal: Indiana Virtual School had the worst rate in the state, graduating just 63 of 985 students.
But as a committee of the Indiana State Board of Education reviewed their performance last week, virtual charter school officials cried foul – claiming they haven't had time to prove themselves and arguing they shouldn't be held to the standards of other public schools because of the students they serve.
“We should be held accountable in more than just the academic arena,” Percy Clark, superintendent for Indiana Virtual School, told committee members. “Every ill that you want to name plagues our students.”
State Board of Education members Gordon Hendry and Cari Whicker appeared unsympathetic to the school officials' excuses – excuses Indiana policymakers have long refused to accept from traditional public schools.
But the same interests that pushed online schools forward in 2009 still hold power over Indiana policymakers. Millions in tax dollars have flowed to the virtual schools, some of which are for-profit enterprises. More than a million in lobbying dollars have been spent here by K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, the largest virtual school companies.
The secretary of the Indiana State Board of Education, Byron Ernest, worked for Virginia-based K12 Inc. until last October. Education Week cited Ernest's dual roles in a 2016 article examining the “outsized influence” of the for-profit virtual charter industry in state politics. Exhibit A was Hoosier Academies, which dodged accountability for five consecutive years of failing performance by creating a second virtual school, where students would ostensibly receive special services and more support.
An investigation by Chalkbeat Indiana, a nonprofit news service focused on education issues, found Indiana Virtual School collected nearly $10 million in taxpayer funds in 2015-16 while compiling the state's worst graduation rate. Gov. Eric Holcomb subsequently called on the state board to put new measures in place to hold online charters accountable for poor performance.
The testimony last week suggested more efforts to dodge accountability, however. The superintendent of Daleville Community Schools, which earns about $1 million a year in fees as authorizer for Indiana Virtual Schools, said the school was working with The Summit, based in Fort Wayne, on a new evaluation tool.
Melissa Brown, executive director for Connections Academy, called for changes ensuring online schools had more time to work with families before they enroll their children.
Indiana's folly in moving into online schools without the clear regulations and accountability Rep. Porter called for in 2009 now seems obvious. What's not clear is whether the governor – whose own campaign benefited from virtual charter school contributions – and others in power will hold them to regulations and accountability.