Editorial: Fiasco over virtual charter schools raises big oversight questions

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

State school officials are trying to claw back $40 million from two virtual charter schools that are accused of collecting state funding for students they weren’t educating.

In fact, according to a state audit, one of those students is dead, at least a couple have moved out of state, and hundreds more were kicked out of school—by the schools collecting money for them.

“How did we miss this?”

That was the question uttered by State Board of Education Chairman B.J. Watts during a meeting July 10 about Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

It’s the key question not only for the debate about virtual charter schools but with the questions about school reform in general.

We do not oppose giving students more choices about where they attend school. We believe the goals that lawmakers and school-choice advocates espoused when they remade Indiana’s education system—namely giving every child in Indiana the chance to go to a better school, in part by freeing educators from regulation that can stifle innovation.

But with freedom and choice comes responsibility. And so as Indiana has expanded the types of schools that students and their families can attend on the state’s dime—from traditional public schools to specialty schools called charters to even private and religious schools—so too has it created new obligations for those involved in the system.

For parents, choice means making thoughtful, informed decisions about the best school for students. For funders—essentially the Indiana General Assembly—it means establishing an oversight system that ensures state dollars are used wisely and in a way that gives students the best possible chance of success.

And for regulators—a group that can include the State Board of Education, local school boards, the groups that authorize charter schools and even, in many ways, voters—it means holding schools accountable when they are not appropriately serving students.

Unfortunately, appropriate oversight of schools—both the funding of schools and their achievement—is too wrapped up in politics to be effective.

Republicans—who are largely responsible for the push for charter schools and vouchers—sometimes appear so desperate for the system to be working that they will overlook problems or give schools too much leeway to improve. But programs like charters, virtual charters and vouchers have been around long enough to know where improvements are necessary.

And many Democrats are so defensive about the impact of charters and vouchers on public schools that they aren’t meaningfully contributing to the conversation about how to make them work. That’s a mistake because thousands of Hoosier families are choosing to leave their public schools in favor of other options—and those children matter, too.

We applaud the great work that Chalkbeat, a not-for-profit education news organization with a bureau in Indianapolis, has done in raising questions for years about virtual charter schools—and with Indiana’s entire education system, including traditional and non-traditional school choices. Chalkbeat’s work has helped drive regulators to try to root out some of the problems.

But as the State Board of Education asks, “How did we miss this?” board members need to look in the mirror. And state lawmakers need to take a good look too. It’s time to take politics out of the answer.•

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