Indiana has long been identified as the “Wild West” for charter schools, opening up funding and support for options differing from the traditional public or private school setting. Virtual schooling has been seen as a natural progression of these alternative education options, but recent closures of two virtual charter schools may suggest a failure to connect.
A virtual school is defined by the Indiana Department of Education as a program provided by a school corporation that provides 50% or more of its instruction via an “interactive virtual learning environment.” Most virtual schools have actual class times and teachers who can be reached by students for instruction and extra help, but students are usually expected to complete a lot of their coursework on their own time.
In order to establish a virtual school, per DOE press secretary Adam Baker, there must be at least 100 students and at least 30% of the student population receiving this virtual instruction.
During the 2018-19 academic year, per Baker, 16,552 students opted to take their education online by enrolling in one of several virtual schools or virtual charter schools.
In addition to getting the numbers, a virtual school must also go through a series of steps with the DOE to be certified as a legitimate virtual school such as receiving accreditation from an accrediting body to vouch for the virtual school’s educational value.
Once those boxes are checked, state funds can be awarded to the virtual schools to cover the costs to educate those students the same way a traditional public school receives funding. From there, students can enroll, do their coursework and even receive a Core 40 diploma, all via the internet.
Not all virtual schools are the same, though. For example, the Indiana Virtual Academy, which has been around since 2002, does not award credits or diplomas. Instead, according to IVA director Ally Swensen, the online academy provides opportunities for students to take classes that may not be offered at their school or during the summer when school is not in session.
“We work with traditional brick-and-mortar schools to offer students opportunities to make up a credit or to take something they don’t offer,” Swensen said. “The school ultimately is in charge of who takes a course and granting the credit.”
This option, Swensen said, appeals to students who don’t necessarily want to leave the traditional school setting, but want to use downtime during or after school and over the summer to get ahead. This is supported by the enrollment numbers IVA reports during its summer school program. During the summer of 2019, 2,500 students from all over the state, including some from northeast Indiana, took at least one class during the summer semester.
A glitch in the system
Charter schools are also cropping up all over the virtual education landscape. Similar to traditional charter schools, these schools have a degree of separation between themselves and the DOE’s watchful eye by way of an “authorizer,” usually a public school corporation that agrees to take the responsibilities of monitoring the school’s progress and ensuring that the charter school is operating properly and in the best interest of students.
“When you have a charter school and authorizer, there’s more separating between them and the state because you have the authorizer responsible for making the decisions,” Baker said.
Unfortunately, some virtual charters have taken advantage of that limited DOE oversight.
Just weeks before the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, two virtual schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, not to be confused with IVA, posted notices on their websites that neither would be accepting new students. IVS went on to state it would suspend operations come Sept. 17 while the IVPA would remain open for the duration of the academic year, closing in June 2020.
The catalyst for the closure, according to Baker, was that the schools’ authorizer, Daleville Community School Corp., caught wind of some questionable practices at the schools regarding enrollment numbers and state dollars.
“They had kids on the roster that had passed away or moved away,” Baker said. “They were claiming funding for students that weren’t there anymore. Then, a couple months ago the state board of education authorized the DOE to recoup that funding.”
DOE data reports that IVS had received $21.7 million and IVAP received $25.6 million, which needed to be recouped by the DOE. The decision was made to halt funding for the two online charter schools until the $47 million-plus debt was paid.
“In layman’s terms we’re going to pay ourselves and recoup that funding,” Baker said. “But they said, ‘We can’t operate without funding, so we’re going to have to close.’ Daleville was going to revoke the charter anyway, and I believe that’s the point we’re at right now.”
Now, the students that had looked to IVS and IVAP for their education will need to find a new avenue whether it be another virtual school or a return to the traditional classroom setting. The big questions filling the minds of students, families and the DOE were “How did this happen?” and “Are all virtual schools just scams?”
Baker and the DOE want to emphasize that this incident was caused by a couple of “bad actors” who took advantage of a system that could benefit from greater oversight. He also assured that not every virtual charter schools is looking to rob students and the state blind.
“This definitely has highlighted a lot of issues,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, you have two schools that have failed students. … There is definitely room for virtual education; you just had some bad actors or individuals that did not pay attention.”
Even though virtual schooling has made some people skeptical or hesitant, it has also been considered a godsend from a great deal of students and their families. Oftentimes, virtual education provides opportunities for students who may not have as much stability in their education, such as military families that move often or students who miss a lot of school due to illness or travel.
Others have cited bullying as a major concern that drove them away from traditional classroom settings, believing their students’ bullying reports were not being addressed properly.
Indiana Connections Career Academy principal Stephanie Chi also added that virtual education has allowed for students with disabilities or who just need a little more help to take classes at their own pace and in a comfortable environment.
“One of the main reasons is that students just didn’t feel seen in their district schools,” Chi said. “They’re looking for an environment where they can feel a deeper connection with teachers and get more one-on-one interactions. Not having students in a classroom all at once really allows teachers to meet students where they’re at academically.”
Justin Foust, 19, is one such student who has found success by way of virtual education. Foust lives in Fort Wayne and had been homeschooled before transferring to a public high school, which proved challenging for him.
“I have a hard time gathering information, especially in public school, and it got to the point that I had trouble doing my schoolwork,” Foust said.
So, Foust and his parents did some research and decided to study through Indiana Connections Career Academy. The switch has given Foust more hands-on instruction that he couldn’t get from just reading a book.
“The teachers actually go in-depth as far as how to learn the stuff,” Foust said. “They go above and beyond a more traditional public school does. You’re doing algebra, and they show you how to work it and how to figure out the problem and then they give you a turn to solve it.”
The online setting has also given Foust flexibility to start taking steps toward a future career. In addition to his studies, Foust is receiving training to become a firefighter, which can sometimes require a large time commitment. But, the online education allows Foust to do his classwork in the evenings before or after a shift.
Chi stated that cases like Foust’s would likely become more common as students move toward vocational training as opposed to attending college for post-secondary education.
“Virtual education is going to only grow,” Chi said. “It will grow as programs like Indiana Connections grow … and we have some students attending career centers for half the day engaging in these hands-on experiences. I think situations like that will continue to grow as students are doing a hybrid of face-to-face and virtual work.”
Swensen also predicts that virtual schools will continue to crop up and grow with the generations of digital natives coming up through the K-12 system and want their education to fit into their virtual life.
“The majority of schools in the state have gone 1 to 1, so I think it’s definitely going to be here to stay for some time,” Swensen said. “The way we live now … I feel like in some form there will always be some kind of technology involved in education going forward.”