A real test of school accountability comes today when the Indiana State Board of Education decides whether it will demand repayment of $40 million that two online charter schools collected for students they never educated.
No debate is necessary. The evidence of fraudulent enrollment practices and dismal academic results is clear. The claim by the virtual schools' superintendent that the state will douse the “beacon of hope” for students enrolled in Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways is nonsense. The state long ago failed the students – and taxpayers – by embracing a freewheeling school choice program at the expense of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.
The virtual schools are public charter schools operated out of Marion County but enrolling students statewide. Chalkbeat, an online education news service, reported in 2017 the founder of the company operating the schools charged millions in management fees and rent while acting as school board president.
Chalkbeat found Indiana Virtual School collected nearly $10 million from the state in 2015-16 while graduating only 5.7% of its seniors – the lowest rate in Indiana. The school spent 89% of its $9.7 million in state funding on “support services,” which can include administrative and legal services. Instructional costs were kept low by hiring few teachers – only 21 instructors to work with 4,682 students studying online, for a ratio of one teacher for every 222 students.
The report drew much attention but little action from the choice-friendly Indiana General Assembly. The legislature finally tightened some rules on virtual charters. But it did not place a cap on enrollment or regulate teacher/student ratios as recommended by the Indiana State Board of Education.
Daleville Community Schools, the public school district authorizing the virtual schools for a fee, finally moved to shut them down in June, with an agreement that Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy will not accept applications or enroll new students after Sept. 13. However, the school will continue to provide instruction through next June 30. Indiana Virtual School is no longer accepting applications, but its website directs parents to its sister school.
Indiana Virtual Pathways should not be allowed to operate for even one more year. A report released Monday by State Examiner Paul Joyce found discrepancies in enrollment, including students who hadn't logged on for classes in months. In the fall of 2017, according to the report, more than half of students at the two virtual schools had been inactive for more than six months. Auditors found two enrolled students had moved out of state and one student had died two years earlier.
In spite of its abysmal academic performance and Chalkbeat's findings of suspect business practices, Indiana Virtual Pathways enrolled 6,266 students last fall. Only 22 of its 2,335 seniors graduated the previous academic year. More than 400 Allen County students – residing in each of the county's four school districts – were enrolled in Indiana Virtual School or Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy last year. Hundreds more local students are enrolled in other online charter schools.
Indiana did not have to wait for a scandal to crack down. Virtual schools in Ohio, California and elsewhere have been the subject of criminal investigations for abuse of tax dollars. The reluctance by Gov. Eric Holcomb and the GOP-controlled General Assembly to hold virtual schools accountable can only be ascribed to their unflinching support for school privatization. Even as he signed the virtual charter bill in May, the governor said parents need to have choices of where to send their children to school.
Choice has been costly. Aside from the millions in tax dollars squandered, thousands of Indiana students appear to have been shortchanged academically.
If elected officials are too timid to act, voters will have to demand accountability at the ballot box. Elimination of the post of elected state schools chief leaves Hoosiers with one less school-choice watchdog and gives the governor unfettered control over schools. Voters must choose wisely next year if they want transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility in education.