The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, June 12, 2018 1:00 am

'Wild West of education'

Virtual schools simply Indiana's latest effort to siphon money away from public districts

Jennifer Robinson and Keri Miksza

In one ad, widely viewed and shared on Facebook, a young child gazes listlessly out the window of a bus. In another, a bus, seen from behind, flashes its lights as it spews exhaust, caught in wintry traffic. 

“You know you really don't have to spend seven and a half days of your life on the bus,” says the ad.

Yet another ad, this one with sound, makes its point more bluntly: “School shouldn't get in the way of your life.”

These ads suggest that school can be boring, can make you feel trapped – that school is inconvenient, when it comes right down to it. Another, oriented toward a parent, aims for the gut and shows a child being bullied on a school bus: “Don't let this be your child's daily routine.” In this textbook example of fear-based advertising, the girl is white. The harassing arms are dark.

Of course, in the world of the ad, there is a quick way for your child to avoid bullies.

These ads represent the challenges of being in public school with peers, and traveling to school with peers, as scary and insurmountable – and they are paid for through the state of Indiana's K-12 budget. They are ads for Indiana Virtual School, an online charter school whose budget is provided through Indiana's per-student tuition support.

In an ironic wrinkle, the authorizer of the Indiana Virtual School is a small public school district, Daleville Community Schools, whose brick-and-mortar schools, with their academic programs, serve fewer than 1,000 students and will benefit from any extra money they can get. Schools throughout Indiana have been hard hit by funding that is not keeping up with inflation; they need teachers, counselors, nurses and social workers.

As a charter authorizer, Dale-ville receives 3 percent of the online charter's tuition support, and thereby adds an extra $1 million to its own budget. That's because the online charter and its spinoff (also authorized by Daleville) will be receiving about $35 million from the state this year. That is $35 million leaking from other districts across Indiana when students in their residential areas opt for an online school.

A new virtual charter, Indiana Agriculture & Technology School, which is set to open this coming school year, has spent almost $150,000 advertising its school.

What is your school's marketing budget? How many times do you have to eat at a dine-and-donate fundraising event to reach this amount? Wouldn't it be better spent on a couple school counselors or therapists?

Its marketing team seems to have decided that the easiest way to recruit students is to poach them from other virtual schools. One such ad says, “Is your choice in a virtual school working for your student? You just want him to succeed. We see that he does.”  Never mind that the school has not started to operate yet; it is slated to open in August.

How much does your school district spend on advertising? What message does your district send to the community? Who is the target audience? How does the advertising message compare to schools' test scores and graduation rates? Does the advertising convey your school's academic programs, extracurriculars and athletics? How does the message compare to the way your school takes care of your children?

When it comes to school marketing in Indiana, there are no requirements for truth in advertising. While ads for the Indiana Virtual School offer hope, a way to escape, the school's actual performance is suspect.

IVS had a graduation rate of 6.5 percent (the lowest in the state) and student turnover of 46.4 percent in 2016-17. 

In addition, there were 25 teachers and 3,376 students at IVS in 2017-18, per the Indiana Department of Education (no data on teachers are provided for its sister school, the Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which served 2,958 students this year). That gives the Indiana Virtual School a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:135. And there is no indication whether these teachers are full- or part-time. (For comparison, at Bloomington High School North, there are about 117 teachers and 1,600 students, meaning a teacher-to-student ratio of about 1:14.) 

A low teacher-to-student ratio certainly leaves the school more money for marketing – or for paying a company owned by the school's founder for space and management services, as detailed by Shaina Cavazos' award-winning Chalkbeat exposé.

In 2015-16, according to Cavazos' reporting, IVS only spent about 10 percent of the money it received from the state on actually teaching students.

Indiana grades schools with an A-F system, and according to the state grades, IVS is a failing school. In fact, all virtual charter schools in Indiana received F grades from the state in both 2016 and 2017, according to the State Board of Education's recent report. Any one of them could be closed by its authorizer, only to be replaced by yet another virtual school.

As Cavazos' recent explorations of the peculiar origins of the new Indiana Agriculture & Technology School show, Indiana is the Wild West of education. There are few rules for virtual schools to follow, but lots of money to be made.

This past session, our legislators killed three bills regarding accountability for charter school authorizing, even though Gov. Eric Holcomb and State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick called for improved accountability in virtual charter schools.  

Finally, the State Board of Education has formed a committee to review virtual charter schools, five months after Holcomb's request for more accountability measures. The committee meets for the first time today and is headed by state board member Gordon Hendry. You can reach him via email at, on Twitter @GordonHendry, and by phone at (317) 232-6610. If any of this concerns you, please contact him.

And if you are considering virtual school as an option for your child, caveat emptor.

Jennifer Robinson, top, and Keri Miksza are members of the Monroe County chapter of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. A version of this appeared on the group's blog.

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