Thursday, December 20, 2018

Will Indiana Clean Up Its Cyber Charter Mess?

It has been over a year since Chalkbeat published a Shaina Cavazos story about virtual schools in Indiana., making clear what a huge mess it has on its hands. Now there's noise that next year the legislature might do something about it.

Not counting on this guy.
The state of cybers in Indiana should come as no surprise-- even CREDO, a charter-friendly organization, found that cyber schools are literally a waste of students' time. Cavazos found that all the usual problems of charters schools in general and cyber schools in particular were in play in Indiana. Crooked self-dealing, where school operators hired their own companies to provide services for the school. Massive lack of sufficient qualified personnel-- how does a student-teacher ratio of 158-1 sound?

Some of the numbers in the Cavazos are staggering-- 10% of budget spent on instruction! 10%!!

Cyber schools without "live" lessons-- just log on and read the assignment or watch the video. Teachers feel disconnected, and there are few accountability measures to insure that the actual student did the assigned work.

At the time the article was released, many officials clutched pearls, hemmed, hawed, gasped in outrage, and waved their angry finger in the air. But nobody actually did anything.

But in a story from yesterday, Cavazos reports that Governor Holcomb now believes that the time is right to do something.

Holcomb said in an interview Tuesday with Chalkbeat that he expects lawmakers to act during next year’s legislative session on an array of proposals to improve virtual charter schools, which were recently approved by the state board of education.

The recommendations are a varied bunch. They include a call for a single statewide authorizer,  There's a call to expand state oversight beyond virtual charter schools to cover any online education services at all. There's a recommendation to monkey with cyber per-student funding. Monitor student participation more closely. If a cyber charters test results stay too lousy for too long, the charter would be forbidden to take on new students.

A measure of outcomes would be useful as well. I'm an opponent off test scores, but if that's how we're playing the game, let's play it. PA cybers are infamous for never once making the test results cut, but never paying a price for their failure.

That is undoubtedly related to the power of charter lobbying. Cybers in particular lobby heavily, with Indiana being the number two destination for K12 lobbyist money (see below). Congrats on that. The biggest obstacle to cyber charter reform in any state is well-connected, well-financed opposition of the companies themselves (and as long as cybers are paid per student rates based on the amount of money the sending district sends, rather than the actual cost the cyber itself, running a virtual charter is as good as printing money).

“The state board did their job, what they were asked to do, and that is to lay out these guardrails,” Holcomb said. “Here’s the action steps that have to be taken to improve the system. We didn’t have that before.”

I suppose that's a step forward. But the last piece of this puzzle is that Holcomb is the designated successor of Mike Pence. He ran on the promise of perpetuating all of Pence's terrible ideas, including all manner of charter and voucher (remember, it was supposedly Pence who promoted Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary). While it's true that bricks and mortar charter fans have turned on cybers before, Eric Holcomb hardly seems like the guy to lead any kind of reform of anything with "charter school" in its name. I'm not sure where this story is headed, but in Indiana I'd keep my eyes peeled for any surprise twists.

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