House Democrats urge study of controversial virtual schools

Rep. Edward DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, offers an admendment on House Bill 1172. Photo by Bryan Wells, TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers from parties in the Indiana House and Senate voted unanimously in the last legislative session to study the cost and benefits of the state’s troubled virtual schools in a summer study committee.

But the virtual schools’ topic is missing from the list of issues to be studied by the Interim Study Committee on Education, which holds its first meeting on Aug. 22.

Now, four Democratic members of the House Education Committee have written a letter urging the State Legislative Council to include virtual schools in the agenda. Vernon Smith of Gary, Tonya Pfaff of Terra Haute, Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis and Sheila Klinker of Lafayette said in an Aug. 7 letter that they want the council to reconsider studying “costs and benefits of virtual schools in relation to public school corporations and public school students.”

The lawmakers noted that the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways have been embroiled in scandal, highlighting the need for increased oversight from the General Assembly. The schools overstated enrollments and the state is now attempting to recoup $40 million in taxpayer money they received.

“We implore the Legislative Council to utilize the 2019 interim wisely and assign this topic to the appropriate committee so the General Assembly can be well prepared for the 2020 Legislative Session,” the four lawmakers said in their letter.

The letter was sent to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indiana, and copied to Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the House Committee on Education.

Bosma did not respond to requests to comment on whether he would add virtual schools to the committee’s work. Sen. President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, who along with Bosma make study committee assignments, declined to comment.

Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, responded to a request for an interview with a written statement:

“After learning some virtual charter schools were not meeting the needs of students, the State Board of Education took action and made recommendations that became law this year. This new law addresses many of the issues these schools faced and strengthens accountability measures to ensure all virtual schools are held to a high standard.”

Behning also said schools need the opportunity to adjust to these requirements.

The lawmakers’ letter comes after Daleville Community Schools terminated its business relationship with Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. Daleville, a small district in Delaware County, was providing oversight for the schools.

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news organization, has reported that it’s unclear how the schools spent some $80 million in public funding from 2016 to 2018 because they failed to file annual audits.

A preliminary report from State Examiner Paul Joyce and the State Board of Accounts found that the two virtual schools, both authorized by Daleville, reported having a least two times as many students as they actually had.

For three years, the state examiner found, the schools padded their enrollments with inactive and out-of-state students. Five years after two students moved to Florida, they reappeared on enrollment records for Indiana Virtual School from 2015 through 2017 and then for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy in 2018 and 2019.

And in one case, Indiana Virtual Schools reportedly kept a student who had died on its rolls.

In addition, many of the students were simply not doing classwork. From 2016 through 2018, 4,535 students from both charter schools were reported as not receiving any credit for courses.

More than 900 inactive students were kicked out of both schools in the 2017-18 school year but were re-enrolled the next school year. These students were included in the average daily membership, the calculation used to determine a school’s share of state dollars.

Indiana Virtual School is slated to close in September and the other, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, is scheduled to close after the next school year. But both schools may end up closing in September after the Daleville school board voted to move forward with revocation of the virtual schools’ charters.

Both virtual charter schools have 15 days to respond to the charter revocation. During the board meeting, Daleville officials indicated that if the charters are revoked, the schools will likely both close by Sept. 30.

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