Indiana has opened the door to full-time virtual schooling, giving a limited number of families access to a new educational choice.
A two-year virtual charter school pilot program was adopted as part of last-minute state budget negotiations this summer. The program is now open to enroll 200 students during the 2009-10 school year and up to 500 students in 2010-11.
Virtual schooling enables public education to take place in a home environment, with students using online technology to communicate with teachers and complete assignments.
Indiana already had allowed hybrid online charter schools, in which students spend two or three days a week on campus and complete their remaining schooling off-site. These programs typically are authorized and operated through the state’s post-secondary institutions.
“For those who don’t live near where it’s offered, [the full-time virtual charter school] provides an opportunity to have a choice other than their local public schools,” said Indiana Families for Public Virtual Schools President Lynette Quinn.
Under the new law, the program focuses on students with medical problems such as severe allergies, as well as others in special circumstances, such as the young swimmers and divers at the Olympic Training Center in Indianapolis.
“At this point we know the interest is diverse,” said Cam Savage, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, where new state superintendent Tony Bennett has proven to be a strong supporter of the movement to empower parents with schooling options.
“It’s less important to us where you go to school,” Savage said. “We believe parents should have the right to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.”
An administrative decision made to accommodate the short window of time in which to hire staff has limited the program’s enrollment for the current year to 40 students each in grades 1 through 5. The legislation also requires 150 of the 200 spaces to be filled by students who were enrolled in public schools in 2008-09.
Quinn—whose organization represents roughly 1,000 public school, homeschool, and private school families—says those limitations may conceal the true demand for virtual charter school programs.
As of August 21, 143 students had signed up, but enrollment remained open until September 14.
“There’s certainly reason to believe the demand will grow, especially if results are achieved as we expect them to be,” said Savage.
Give and Take
The Indiana Senate approved legislation to implement virtual charter schools several times during the past few years, but it met consistent resistance from the majority-Democrat House. Supporters were able to win concessions during the special session budget talks this year, not only for the virtual school pilot program but also to lift charter school caps and appropriate more funds for charter school construction.
“There was some give-and-take in negotiations,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn). “But the House Democratic majority was willing to give on key issues. One was the virtual charter school.”
The Indiana State Teachers Association pushed for a virtual school cooperative among the state’s 290 school corporations.
ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger said a virtual co-op model “would have established rigorous quality standards for virtual courses” while guarding taxpayers “from excessive charges by virtual school providers.”
Quinn says the co-op idea would give school officials the power to limit choice.
“It does not allow the parents to freely choose a virtual school,” Quinn said. “My own son was denied access to online classes by a school corporation.”
ISTA opposes working with a private for-profit company to provide the online services. “It is likely that costs for virtual courses will be higher than necessary,” said Schnellenberger.
But Quinn says the objection is unfounded, noting all school systems are governed by nonprofit public boards and negotiate with for-profit curriculum providers.
“Virtual charter schools have all the same protections for the taxpayer as any other public charter school,” Quinn said.
Indiana’s new online program receives 20 percent less funding per student than the state’s traditional public schools, but ISTA has been adamant in calling for the program to be audited for fiscal soundness and academic quality. The state’s department of education agrees.
“The most important thing we’re going to do is we’re going to hold these accountable like any other school,” said Savage.
Indiana House Minority Leader Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) says the two-year pilot program “is just the beginning of expanding that choice opportunity.”
Quinn said her group plans to step up efforts to clear up misconceptions about online education. She says she hopes parents of virtual charter school students will invite lawmakers into their homes to see how the schools work.
“People don’t really understand what virtual education is,” Quinn said. “We’re going to have to keep educating or reeducating legislators, because they haven’t experienced it.”
Bosma believes the benefits of a genuine choice in virtual education go beyond the families directly served.
“Through competition and virtual charters, public education will be improved dramatically in Indiana and elsewhere,” Bosma said.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.