If the state's newly released high school graduation rate report serves just one purpose, it should be as impetus for a crackdown on virtual charter schools, including one which more than doubled in size after graduating only 22 of its 1,009 seniors last spring.
Senate Bill 183 would serve as a check on Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which posted a graduation rate of 2.18 percent, compared with a state average of 88.1 percent. The legislation would terminate the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways and Indiana Virtual School at the end of their current terms and would limit the enrollment of other online schools.
For now, the schools serve as cash cows for their authorizers and operators. Daleville Community Schools, a small district located between Muncie and Anderson, will collect $1.16 million as authorizer for Indiana Virtual Pathways, which enrolled 6,266 students this year, including 128 students who live in Allen County. The school, operated out of an office suite in suburban Indianapolis, opened with about 3,000 students in 2017, drawing most of its enrollment from its sister charter, Indiana Virtual School. The original school received its third consecutive F grade from the state in the fall, but the two schools are expected to collect more than $35 million in student tuition support this year. Online schools receive 90 percent of the per-student tuition support paid to traditional schools.
A 2017 investigation by Chalkbeat, an education news website, found the schools had just one teacher for every 222 students. Not surprisingly, academic performance was dismal. The report also found questionable business practices, including state money flowing from the virtual charters to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company created and once led by the schools' founder.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, cited the Indiana Chalkbeat investigation during a June congressional committee hearing on charter schools, calling out Indiana Virtual School as an example of the failed promises of online charter schools. Her remarks followed comments by Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, who boasted of Indiana's charter school laws as a model for other states and praised the schools for creating more opportunities and lifting academic achievement.
Banks' accolades for Indiana charter guidelines contrast with Gov. Eric Holcomb's call for changes. The governor called for “immediate action” after the Chalkbeat investigation.
“The state shouldn't allow schools that have that poor of performance to continue,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat in 2017. “I look forward over this next year, with the state board of education, to help put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance. Poor performance would be putting it lightly.”
The General Assembly failed to act in the last session, but Holcomb told Chalkbeat reporter Shaina Cavazos “the stars are aligning” this year to tighten restrictions and oversight of online schools.
After months of hearings by a subcommittee, the Indiana State Board of Education adopted a resolution outlining legislative recommendations on virtual schools, including a recommendation to eliminate the financial incentives that have fueled the enrollment growth. The resolution also addresses general guidelines for online education, as a growing number of public schools add virtual classes.
SB 183, sponsored by Gary Democrat Eddie Melton, is the only legislation now posted that would restrict virtual charter schools. It's a good place to start. Indiana lawmakers must be called to account for their embrace of school choice over school quality.
Enrollment is growing at the state's online schools
Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy: 6,266 students, year over year increase of 3,308
Indiana Connections Academy: 4,852 students, increase of 201
Indiana Connections Career Academy: 385 students, increase of 313
Insight School of Indiana: 793 students, increase of 27
Source: Indiana Department of Education