Indiana's friendly environment for education privatizers is summed up nicely by an audacious attempt to open an online agriculture charter school for students in grades 7-12. Billing the model as a “real virtual school,” organizers initially said the statewide school would offer occasional farm visits, but they wouldn't be mandatory.
The idea of an agriculture programtaught entirely online seems ludicrous only if you don't see the profit potential. Virtual schools are eligible to collect 90 percent of the basic tuition grant for each student enrolled, so the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School – with 100 students now enrolled – was set to collect about $460,000 a year, with limited expenses for instruction, textbooks or equipment. Fortunately, scrutiny of another Indiana virtual school seems to have pushed the state to demand some classes be taught face-to-face. Monthly visits to a Morgan County farm and as little as four hours of computer instruction a day suggest the school won't be any more successful than the four F-rated online schools now serving about 13,000 Hoosier students, however.
Indiana's dismal record for oversight of online charter schools is one reason it earned its own failing grade in a report evaluating the extent to which states divert money from traditional public schools to private schools and charter schools operated by for-profit management companies. The survey, by the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation, which might be easily dismissed as biased except that its findings are irrefutable, notes:
• Indiana has three separate programs designed to funnel tax dollars from public schools, at a conservative estimate of $171 million a year. “Indiana law has continued to morph over the years so that prior enrollment in a public school is no longer needed to receive a voucher for private school,” wrote Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “That means that taxpayers are now funding private school tuition previously paid for by parents.”
• Private schools receiving tax dollars are allowed to discriminate against students for whom English is not their first language by not providing services and can discriminate in enrollment on the basis of religion. “It is a system in which the school, not the parent, does the choosing.” Burris wrote in an email.
• Failing charter schools have been allowed to convert to voucher schools, so that they can “continue indefinitely,” Burris wrote.
“Indiana received such a low score not only for its willingness to expand the privatization of its schools without reasonable limits, but also for the weaknesses in the laws themselves which put taxpayers and students at risk,” she wrote. “Indiana appears to have engaged in policy and legislation designed to undermine its public schools and replace them with a privatized system of schooling with insufficient oversight, civil rights protections for students and regulations to protect taxpayers.”
Chalkbeat Indiana's investigation of Indiana Virtual School revealed the online school collected millions in state funding as it churned out few graduates, employed a handful of teachers and funneled contracts to its own founder's for-profit company. The report prompted the overdue review of online charter schools. Indiana policymakers would be wise to take a step back from its school privatization rush to evaluate the effects and to consider why private, parochial and charter schools shouldn't meet the same accountability requirements placed on community schools.