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Facing state scrutiny, Indiana charter school steps back from virtual plan

July 3, 2018

An Indiana charter school is backing off its unconventional plan to open a statewide virtual school with a farm campus following scrutiny from state officials over its oversight model.

In May, a Chalkbeat investigation examined concerns about whether Indiana Agriculture and Technology School’s plan to be overseen by a school district exploited a loophole in state law.

Following the investigation, the Indiana State Board of Education told Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools in an email exchange obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request that only the state charter board or a university could authorize a statewide virtual charter school.

Now, a month before it is set to open, the school says it will instead incorporate more in-person learning so it can launch as a brick-and-mortar charter school, not a virtual school.

“After examining our program, it was clear to all parties that we do not meet the technical definition of a virtual school,” said Allan Sutherlin, the school’s founder and board president, in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Sutherlin did not immediately respond to questions about how students recruited from across the state will participate in in-person lessons and access the farm campus.

When asked about the oversight issue in March, state board officials told Chalkbeat that they didn’t have the authority to review charter contracts. Indiana law doesn’t specifically prohibit or allow districts to oversee statewide virtual schools, but lawmakers say districts were not intended to have that power.

But, in a May 31 letter, Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board, told the school district to “address this issue as quickly as possible as failure to do so violates Indiana law.”

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Timothy Edsell contended the district was in compliance with the law, disputing the state board’s interpretation.

He said the district is allowed to authorize the school because the school leases land within the district’s boundaries. He also argued that the portion of state law that addresses who can authorize virtual charter schools isn’t restrictive—it says virtual charters “may” apply with a statewide authorizer, Edsell said, not that they “shall” or “must.”

“There is legal authority to support our collective actions and all legal requirements have been followed,” Edsell wrote in a follow-up letter to state board staff.

But then, on June 22, the agriculture school changed course. Despite originally applying for its charter as a “statewide virtual school,” it informed the state that the school would instead be opening as a brick-and-mortar charter school with a so-called “blended-learning” model.

The school plans to mix online instruction and in-person visits to regional sites and the school’s farm campus in southern Indiana, according to documents Marsh provided to the state. That will include weekly in-person learning sessions at the farm campus or elsewhere, monthly farm campus visits, dual credit opportunities with the Central 9 Career Center and Ivy Tech Community College, and internships and work-based learning with local partners.

The move was a significant change from the school’s original plans. Although school officials emphasized hands-on experiences students would receive, they told Chalkbeat earlier this year that the farm visits weren’t mandatory and would be occasional. Through social media marketing, the school has advertised itself for months as a “real virtual school.”

And, in March, Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director, confirmed with the Indiana Department of Education that the school was virtual.

Even with the change in plans, the school says 49 percent of a student’s schooling will occur online. The state defines a virtual charter school as providing more than 50 percent of its instruction online.

As a traditional charter school, the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is also now entitled to an increase in state funding—full state tuition support instead of the 90 percent virtual charter schools receive. The school has so far enrolled about 100 students.

It’s unclear why the school decided to make the change to blended-learning when it did. But on June 29, after the school confirmed its new model with the state, Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, told district superintendent Edsell that the school’s charter would have been invalid if it had remained a virtual school.

Sutherlin and Marsh declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

In addressing the school’s new model, Schultz wrote that the district “is responsible for ensuring that every charter school it authorizes is complying with all applicable federal and state laws.”

Schultz wrote that the state board “has no mechanism to independently verify” that the school is operating according to its new plan. The Indiana Department of Education also does not monitor whether charter schools follow rules set by their authorizers or the state, a spokeswoman said.

State Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman, said the state board’s review showed “due diligence.” He also said the law would likely have to be clarified.

“I was concerned and made it very clear that I thought a local school corporation could not authorize a statewide virtual (school), so I’m glad that they’re now in compliance,” Behning said. “My guess is there will be changes to our virtual charter law anyway in terms of some different parameters we might put in, so we’ll hopefully clean that up at the same time.”

Virtual charter schools have drawn scrutiny in both Indiana and Washington, D.C. A state board committee met for the first time last month to explore changes that could be made to state law to improve the schools, which have records of poor academic performance in Indiana. Additionally, lawmakers at a Congressional committee hearing later that same week raised questions about the schools.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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