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Indiana Virtual Charter School Escapes the Ax Again, Despite Poor Academic Record

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Indiana education officials have decided to give a long-troubled virtual charter school another chance to right its academic ship, despite earning six consecutive years' worth of failing grades from the state.

Hoosier Academy Virtual School's fate has been in limbo for two years as state officials have deferred taking the extreme measure of closing the school because of its persistently low academic scores. The school serves more than 3,000 students.

On Wednesday, the state board of education opted instead to ban the school from enrolling new students and slash how much the school's authorizer can collect in administrative fees. 

As I wrote in an investigation by Education Week into full-time online charters last fall, Hoosier Virtual Academy's story is not unusual.

Similar scenarios of state scrutiny and near misses involving other online charter schools have played out across the country since the early 2000s. As part of that report, Education Week found that despite more than a decade of state investigations, news media reports, and research documenting at times startling failures and gross mismanagement in full-time online schools, the sector—dominated by two for-profit companies—continues to expand, spreading into new states and enrolling more students. Virtual charter schools, which collectively receive more than $1 billion in taxpayer money each year, are rarely shut down.

Hoosier Academy Virtual School is run by one of those companies, K12 Inc. which is based in Herndon, Va. K12 Inc. is the country's largest for-profit operator of full-time, online charter schools and runs effective lobbying efforts in more than 20 states, including Indiana, where, according to Education Week's investigation, it had spent around $1 million dollars lobbying state lawmakers and donating to their campaigns and political parties since 2007. 


Outsized Influence: Online Charter Schools Bring Lobbying 'A' Game to States


(To read K12 Inc.'s response to Education Week's investigation, which includes details about Hoosier Academies Virtual School, click here.) 

The head of the school, Byron Ernest, also sits on the state board of education, although he recused himself from the board's decision on the school's fate. School officials blamed student absenteeism for much the school's academic struggles and said they were working on strategies to improve participation.

Getting students to show up and log in to their classes is also a persistent problem facing cyber charters nationally, as detailed by Education Week's Benjamin Herold.

Another issue that arose during Wednesday's board meeting—where several students pleaded with board members to spare their school from the chopping block—was the revelation that much of Hoosier Virtual's curriculum is not aligned to the state's academic standards, which could also be driving down student test scores.

Indiana State Board of Education members were divided over whether the school operator, K12 Inc., or the authorizer, Ball State University, should shoulder responsibility for the school's ongoing problems. (Authorizers are the organizations with the authority to approve new charter schools to open.)

Ultimately, they decided to sanction both: Ball State will now only be able to collect 1 percent of its 3 percent authorizing fee from Hoosier Virtual. Meanwhile, Hoosier Virtual's enrollment will be frozen at its current levels, with an exception made for parents who want to sign up siblings of students already attending the school.

Indiana's new state schools' chief, Jennifer McCormick, who sits on the state board, took a moment in the midst of voting on the board's actions to articulate where she stood on the idea of school choice more broadly.

"It's not just about choice, it should be about quality of choice and until this conversation happens in Indiana, we are going to be having this conversation [over closing schools] again and again," she said.

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