Charter school offering cash to families wants to open in Indiana

A virtual charter school in Arizona wants to expand to Indiana with a model that offers parents a cash stipend for enrichment activities and curricular materials.

Colearn Academy, an all-virtual school that offers students three learning pathways with varying degrees of independence, is seeking authorization from Education One, a charter authorizer operated by Trine University, a private university in Angola, Indiana.

But a similar model has already landed another Indiana virtual school in hot water with legislators, who passed a law earlier this year that expanded a previous ban on schools offering money as an incentive to enroll.

In a statement, Colearn Indiana representative Kimberly Phillips did not directly answer whether its stipends could be considered enrollment incentives, but instead said the funding is meant to provide “customized educational experiences.”

“Unlike a traditional school that purchases the same educational materials and curriculum for each student, our enrichment account enables a student to engage in a customized learning experience based on their individual interests and needs,” Phillips said.

Lindsay Omlor, executive director of charter schools for Education One, said she could not comment on a school application that’s still pending review.

In 2020, Chalkbeat reported on the criticism of an Indiana school that offered parents cash to purchase curricular materials that included Netflix subscriptions, museum memberships, and toys.

That school, Tech Trep Academy, later switched to a points-based system that it maintains is not an enrollment incentive.

Some lawmakers disagreed. Earlier this year, they passed a law that broadened an existing ban on monetary incentives for enrollment to include “any item that has monetary value, including cash or a gift card.”

The Indiana Department of Education said in a statement that it has “worked to communicate the requirements of” the new law to help schools remain compliant. The department previously said it reached out to Tech Trep about concerns in May.

Colearn submitted an application in August to Education One, which oversees 12 public charter schools and 4,200 students in Indiana.

Colearn’s application says the school will enroll students statewide, but that it will target “rural communities” in central Indiana counties like Marion, Boone, Hamilton, and Howard.

It also places a particular emphasis on recruiting families who would otherwise choose to homeschool.

“Colearn has a unique opportunity to serve these families, particularly in the counties specified by providing access to resources that families could not acquire on their own,” the application says.

Its model provides three pathways to students — one in which students take lessons from a Colearn teacher, and two others in which students use online or at-home curriculum that’s monitored by a program mentor. The mentor can be a parent or someone teaching children under their care, according to the application.

The school plans to offer a $600 yearly stipend for program mentors to enroll their students in outside extracurricular activities, or to purchase supplies or alternative curriculum. Program mentors use an online portal to place their orders, which are then approved or rejected by a Colearn teacher.

“Providing funds to all families levels the playing field so that any family can enroll their child in enriching activities to promote the development of their child regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, religion, race, or ethnicity,” the application says.

But Kylene Varner, a homeschooling advocate with the Indiana Association of Home Educators, said the sum offered by Colearn not only wouldn’t go far, but taking it would require families to give up the educational freedom that may have attracted them to homeschooling.

Indiana law defines a homeschool as a “nonpublic and nonaccredited” school. Phillips said students who enroll at Colearn would be considered public school students at a charter school, not homeschoolers.

Homeschools in Indiana have few requirements, which include keeping attendance records. Unlike homeschool students, Colearn students would be required to participate in benchmark and state assessments, according to the application.

Varner, who supported the new incentive law, said it’s a misconception that home education must be expensive, as many families take a low-cost approach through free curriculum and library resources.

“People forget that families are homeschooling because they’ve chosen to not be part of the public school system,” she said.

In its application, Colearn also touted the successes of its Arizona charter school, which opened in 2021. That school also offers a $600 annual stipend to parents or program mentors for academic materials and extracurricular activities.

At Education One, Colearn’s application is under review by a team that consists of finance, facilities, and educational consultants, as well as legal counsel, according to Education One’s website.

Applications that make it through the entire process are ultimately approved by the three members of the Education One board.

The school hopes to open for the 2023-24 school year. Though it’s not clear when Education One will approve or decline the application, the authorizer recommends that schools submit an application at least nine months before their intended start date.

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

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