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Ball State must convince state board why failing online charter school deserves another chance

Alan Petersime

The Indiana State Board of Education must decide on Wednesday what to do about one of the state’s lowest-scoring online charter schools.

Hoosier Academy Virtual, one of a handful of online schools in the state, has received five consecutive years of F-grades, based primarily on state test scores. Indiana law caps schools at four years of low grades before officials must get involved. Last year, the state board stepped in to question charter sponsor Ball State University about why the school continued to struggle. Ultimately, board members gave the school a one-year reprieve.

Bob Marra, the charter school director for Ball State, argued at the time that Hoosier Academy Virtual serves many students with special needs and many of those who come in far behind grade level or have been expelled from their home districts. Some student have dealt with long-term illnesses, too. For those reasons, he said Hoosier Virtual Academy should be exempted from harsh accountability rules.

In addition to the one-year accountability break, the state board last year also chose not to punish Ball State by cutting the fee it receives to oversee the school, as permitted under state law. During the 2014-15 school year, Ball State received $412,200 of state school funding to run Hoosier Academy Virtual.

Tomorrow the board will revisit the school’s case and again decide the school’s fate. Board members aren’t required to close the school, but that is one option. The board could also transfer the school to another sponsor or cut Ball State’s fees.

Ball State will need to persuade state board members with a compelling reason for why the school should stay open, state board spokesman Josh Gillespie said in an email.

Board member Byron Ernest is the head of Hoosier Academies, both the online school and the brick-and-mortar school. Ernest was not on the board when the reprieve was granted.

Indiana’s four virtual schools — Hoosier Academy Virtual, Indiana Connections Academy, Indiana Virtual School and Wayne Township’s virtual high school — haven’t had strong track records. None of the schools have earned a grade above a “D” from the state in recent years. The schools collectively enroll about 9,000 students across the state, which is fewer than 1 percent of all Indiana students. This year Decatur Township started a K-12 virtual school, which district officials are hopeful can beat the trend of other online options. Decatur is the second online school launched by a school district, following in Wayne’s footsteps. The other three schools are charter schools.

Hoosier Academy Virtual scores the worst across the board — on test scores, graduation rate and dropout rate — when compared to the state’s other online schools. The school’s ISTEP scores were far below state averages in 2015, 27 percentage points below the average in English and 30 percentage points below in math. Graduation rate has also been consistently low, at 21 percent in 2015 compared to the 89 percent statewide average.

More than three-quarters of Hoosier Academy Virtual’s students are white, about one-quarter are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and about 13 percent have special needs, according to 2016 state data.

Indiana is not alone in its online school struggles. Students at virtual charter schools in Ohio — one of the largest online schooling efforts in the country — were recently found to have lower performance than kids in brick-and-mortar schools, according to a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which corroborates findings from an 18-state study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in 2015. Georgia virtual schools have also struggled to find success.

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