House committee passes tighter rules for virtual schools

When Donnie Bowsman saw four students leave Randolph Southern Schools to enroll in virtual education programs before they reached the fourth grade, one question plagued his mind.

“These kids can’t even go to the bathroom by themselves, and they’re expected to sit in front a computer for five hours a day? There’s no way,” said Bowsman, Randolph Southern superintendent and former elementary teacher. He was testifying before the House Education Committee on Wednesday as members reviewed a bill to expand regulations for virtual school programs. It is one of several measures before the General Assembly on the topic.

From the moment those four young students — and many more around the state — left the traditional classroom for a virtual education, his questions only multiplied: Can out-of-state students benefit from Indiana’s tax dollars by joining in-state virtual programs? Are for-profit vendors the right partners for public schools? What is the purpose of a K-11 virtual school when students are expected to graduate at year 12?

His conclusion: “We definitely need oversight, and this bill needs propped up.”

House Bill 1172, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, outlines new rules to better assess and guide the educators, parents and students engaged in virtual school.

With a new amendment introduced at the hearing, the bill would require virtual programs to design and host an annual onboarding process for students. HB 1172 also subjects virtual schools to an array of regulations by the Indiana State Board of Education that would track student attendance, parent engagement and staff training.

Additionally, it asks any school corporation in which 30 percent of the student population is enrolled in that corporation’s virtual program to establish a “dedicated virtual education school,” among other provisions.

Behning said he designed the bill with help from the state board, which provided a series of recommendations to lawmakers in a December 2018 report. The board offered six core requests for action, including a call to unify tuition support across traditional brick-and-mortar and virtual schools, subject classes to student-teacher ratio limits, and prevent low-performing virtual charter schools from accepting new students until performance improves to a “C” grade.

Virtual charter schools currently receive a reduced amount of tuition support, totaling 90 percent, according to the board’s report and testimony by Caitlyn Bell, vice president of policy and government relations for the Institute for Quality Education. That’s almost $3,000 less per student, Bell said.

While educators like Bowsman said they aren’t opposed to integrating technology with the classroom, a continued lack of oversight will only harm students. And though several speakers, including Bowsman, testified in support of HB 1172, they said it doesn’t go far enough to limit the risks of virtual education.

Melissa Brown, executive director of Indiana Connections Academy, a virtual charter school that serves more than 4,500 in grades K-12, spoke in favor of HB 1172’s student onboarding requirement. Brown said quality programs are possible through virtual schools with the right coordination and oversight.

“There seems to be a misconception among many that online school is easier and more convenient than a traditional brick-and-mortar school,” Brown said. “I believe that we do offer a more flexible platform and an important option, but it’s certainly not the easy way out.”

In any case, legislators said they recognize the industry needs guidance — and fast. According to a 2018 survey by the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), more than 18,690 students enrolled in virtual school across 38 programs for the 2018-2019 academic year. While that’s only a 9 percent increase from the previous academic year, 2017-2018 saw an explosion of students in virtual schools, when enrollment increased by 70 percent across 30 programs.

Behning said he will continue to consider how to best support the virtual education discussion within HB 1172, which passed 8-0 in the committee, and in partnership with related bills. In particular, Behning said, he wants to address how to increase student mobility in virtual schools.

“I’ve seen that historically the number of students who show up at our virtual schools are very far behind of where they should be,” Behning said.

Data collected by the IDOE, for example, shows over that students at Indiana Connections Academy passed the ISTEP+ exam below the state average over a four-year period. Additionally, students at the academy graduated at a rate of 50 percent or less over a seven-year period, totals that again ranked below Indiana’s average rates of 87 to 90 percent.

“Virtual education is definitely going to be a tool that we’re going to use in the future,” Behning said. “It is definitely a trend that is not going to reverse itself.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.