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State picks first virtual charter-school operator

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The Hoosier Academies will start up the state's first virtual charter program later this month, the Indiana Department of Education announced today.

The state Legislature has promised to pay 80 percent of tuition for as many as 200 students, in first through fifth grades, to enroll with Hoosier Academies but take all their courses over the Internet.

Hoosier Academies already offers a mix of in-class and online instruction to their 600 students in Indianapolis and Muncie. The school's campuses operate as charters, which are state-funded but freed from some of the regulations traditional public schools must follow.

IBJ reported on July 20 that Hoosier Academies was the leading candidate to operate as the state's first virtual charter school, but that state officials were waiting for a decision by Ball State University to amend the school's charter status to allow for online-only instruction.

But the Education Department decided to move forward without any amendment to the Hoosier Academies' charter. Ball State is not sponsoring the virtual school that Hoosier Academies will operate although it continues to sponsor two other charter schools Hoosier Academies already operates.

Only Ball State and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard have the authority to create charter schools.

"Parents are looking for options that best meet their students' individual needs," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, in a prepared statement.

In 2007, Ball State drew fire for granting charter status to two startup online schools. Many legislators objected, questioning the quality of online education and saying it was unclear whether virtual charter schools should receive as much per-student funding as other state-supported schools do.

The Legislature denied funding to virtual charters for two years. As a result, Indiana Virtual Charter School in Indianapolis and Indiana Connections Academy in Muncie, which had enrolled a total of 2,200 students, never opened.

This year, the Legislature agreed to a limited two-year pilot program, which must focus on students who have medical disabilities or who live in remote areas, but it can also accept students who deem the virtual charter "a better alternative" to a traditional public school.

The Hoosier Academies are managed by Lynn Black, an employee of Virginia-based K12 Inc., a publicly traded education business with nearly $300 million in revenue. Before joining K12, Black was an education consultant and a public school principal in Indiana.

Hoosier Academies will offer 40 slots each in grades one through five. Next year, enrollment could expand to 500 students, but the Education Department might also add a second operator to the program.

Bennett promised to hold the Hoosier Academies Virtual Pilot School "accountable" to document attendance of its virtual students, to make its teachers accessible for immediate communication and to provide testing sites for the ISTEP test that are no more than 50 miles away from its students homes.
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