Hoosier Academies leads chase for virtual charter schools

July 20, 2009

Hoosier Academies is the leading candidate to operate a controversial virtual charter school pilot program authorized last month by the Legislature.

The group, which already operates charter schools in Indianapolis and Muncie, has been in discussions with the Indiana Department of Education, confirmed Lynn Black, Hoosier’s head of schools.

But a decision has not been made. The key remaining hurdle is that Ball State University has yet to agree to amend the charter it gave Hoosier Academies to allow it to enroll full-time online students.

Department of Education spokesman Cam Savage declined to comment on the department’s discussions with schools. But he did say the department intends to pick one school operator for 2009-2010 and add a second operator for the following school year.

Ball State referred questions to the Department of Education.

Two years ago, 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 provide taxpayer funding for 200 virtual charter school students the first year of the pilot and 500 the second year.

“We already have a strong working relationship with the Department of Education and we’d be honored to have the opportunity” to run the virtual charter school, Black said. He hopes the two-year pilot program will “help the public understand the opportunities of virtual education.”

The Legislature said the pilot should 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.

Hoosier Academies operates two of the six public schools around the state that provide courses over the Internet. Because none of the other four operate as charters, Hoosier is the only group in a position to operate a virtual charter right away. It normally takes a year for a school to win charter authorization.

Hoosier Academies runs “blended” or “hybrid” schools. Their 600 students come to the academies’ campuses two days each week. Other days of the week, they take courses over the Internet, some of which are taught live by teachers, using video programs that allow students to ask questions as the class is happening.

The live online courses and the on-site days count as “direct” instruction. Hoosier’s charter requires that more than half its instruction be direct. In the past year—which was the school’s first—roughly 60 percent of its courses were direct.

Dan Clark, executive deputy director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, criticized the Legislature for not requiring a rigorous performance evaluation of virtual schools. “Our major concern is just doing this in the dark,” he said.

Clark also worries that the pilot “opens the door” to taxpayer support of for-profit schools. The Hoosier Academies are managed by Virginia-based K12 Inc., a publicly traded education business with nearly $300 million in revenue.

The other online schools around the state provide instruction on a fee-per-course basis. The fees—$200 to $300 per course per semester—are paid either by parents or by schools. State funds are available only for summer school—and that’s when their attendance peaks.

Those schools are the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities at Ball State; the Indiana Online Academy in Indianapolis; the Indiana Virtual Academy in Batesville; and the Indiana University High School in Bloomington.

IU High School is the only one of the four that grants diplomas. For that reason, it is the most threatened by the new virtual charter program, which promises state funds will cover 80 percent of tuition.

“If there are going to be other schools in the state that are going to be getting 80 percent of their costs underwritten, how can we compete with that?” said Bruce Colston, director of IU High School. So Colston, who said he supports virtual charters, told the Department of Education that IU is interested in operating one.

Indiana Online Academy also made its case to operate a virtual charter school. The other two online schools have not.•


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