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Why Indiana officials pulled a private school’s vouchers and accreditation

As state policymakers have expanded avenues for private schools to access state dollars, state officials decided Wednesday to take vouchers away from one northwest Indiana school accused of numerous violations.

Midwest Elite Preparatory Academy, a private school in Crown Point, is accused of violating  state law by failing to test students, report student data so the school could receive a letter grade, and return excess voucher payments, according to an investigation by the Indiana Department of Education. The Indiana State Board of Education agreed with the assessment, voting unanimously on Wednesday to revoke the school’s accreditation and ability to accept taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Read: Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program

“Midwest Elite is anything but elite,” said board member Gordon Hendry. “This conduct by this school and its administration is really outrageous. So the action we’re taking is 100 percent justified.”

Representatives from the school were not present at the meeting in Columbus and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. But in comments to the Post-Tribune, the school’s director, Ronda Payne, said Midwest Elite couldn’t test students on computers, and said they got conflicting instructions from the state about how to test. Payne told the Tribune the school has now returned the voucher funds and previously mailed test results to the state.

Department of Education officials assured board members that they were reaching out to families, who would have the option to transfer their voucher dollars to a new private school or switch to a public school, which would receive additional state funds for them.

Midwest Elite, which received about $140,000 from the state last year, won’t receive any voucher money this year, said Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board who presented on the investigation to board members Wednesday.

Schultz also said that as of Wednesday morning, the school was seeking accreditation from another entity not affiliated with the state. While that would mean the school wouldn’t need to rely on the state’s typical private school accreditation option, known as freeway accreditation, it wouldn’t resolve issues with state tests, which must be administered if a school wants to receive vouchers.

Read: How vouchers transformed Indiana: Private schools now live or die by test scores, too

In some ways, the allegations against Midwest Elite are a textbook example of the potential perils of a statewide education voucher program. Public school advocates can point to Wednesday’s vote as a victory — mishandling state dollars confirms their fears about mixing public and private entities. And for champions of school choice, the allegations are so damning  that they could draw attention away from the opportunities they believe vouchers provide to families.

Even before Wednesday’s revelations, the school had been struggling for several years — in enrollment alone, it has dropped to 29 students in 2018 from 90 in 2014. The school is so small, in fact, that there is next to no public data available on its performance. What we do know is the school serves students in grades K-12, and it was first accredited in 2013, one of the prerequisites for being able to offer vouchers.

According to the state investigation, Midwest Elite did not properly test students last year. Officials said the school didn’t register for testing or explain to the state how it would administer the test.

School administrators did, on the last day of the first testing window, contact the state and request paper tests, which they were told would not arrive in time to meet the testing deadline, the state said in its investigation.

The state education department visited the school several months later, finding no evidence that the school was following state rules about giving ISTEP or preparing to do so. A few months after that, the state’s investigation said the school also failed to give students the required state reading exam. Payne also disputes this, telling the Tribune the results were mailed to the state.

Outside of testing, the state report found that the school didn’t keep records of its voucher students, or properly document when they left the school. Administrators were late on reporting enrollment and mobility data to the state, among other information, which meant the state couldn’t audit the school, the investigation found.

At each point of noncompliance, the state stepped in and asked Midwest Elite to send in a plan to correct its mistakes, officials said. It didn’t do that either, according to the state investigation.

The school also didn’t return excess voucher dollars to the department, which eventually led to the Attorney General’s office stepping in. When the school did eventually try to pay back the funds, the state says its bank accounts couldn’t cover the costs. The school then tried to use its principal’s personal bank account instead — a request the state denied, according to the investigation.

State board staff’s memo containing recommendations to the board were unequivocal:

“Midwest Elite’s accreditation and status as an eligible Choice Scholarship school should be revoked immediately.”