In one ad, a young child gazes listlessly out the window of a bus (127 shares, 106K views). In another, a bus, seen from behind, flashes its lights as it spews exhaust, caught in wintry traffic (1.8K shares, 372,000 views).
"You know you really don't have to spend Seven and a Half days of your life on the bus," says the ad.
Another video, this one with sound, makes its point more bluntly. "School shouldn't get in the way of your life."
These Facebook ads suggest that school can be boring, that you can feel trapped there—that school is inconvenient, when it comes right down to it. Others address adults, aiming for the gut and showing a child being bullied on a school bus. "Don't let this be your child's daily routine." In this textbook example of fear-based advertising, the girl is white. The harassing arms are dark.
Of course, in the world of the ad, there is a quick way for your child to avoid bullies.
These ads represent the challenges of being in public school with peers, and traveling to school with peers, as scary and insurmountable—and they are paid for through the state of Indiana's K-12 budget. They are ads for Indiana Virtual School (IVS), an online charter school, whose budget is provided through Indiana's per-student tuition support.
It's a school-eat-school world
In an ironic wrinkle, the authorizer of the Indiana Virtual School is a small public school district, Daleville Community Schools, whose brick-and-mortar schools, with their academic programs, serve fewer than 1000 students and will benefit from any extra money they can get. Schools throughout Indiana have been hard hit by funding that is not keeping up with inflation; they need teachers, counselors, nurses, and social workers. As a charter authorizer, Daleville receives 3% of the online charter's tuition support, and thereby adds an extra $1 million to its own budget. That's because the online charter and its spinoff (also authorized by Daleville) will be receiving about $35 million from the state this year. That is $35 million leaking from other districts across Indiana when students in their residential areas opt for an online school.
A new virtual charter, Indiana Agriculture & Technology School, which is set to open this coming school year, has spent almost $150,000 advertising its school.
This is the marketing budget line for Indiana Agriculture and Technology school. The left number is what they spent between July 2017 and June 2018. The right line is what was budgeted. What is your school's marketing budget? How many times do you have to eat at a dine-and-donate fundraising event to reach this amount? Wouldn't it be better spent on a couple school counselors or therapists?
Its marketing team seems to have decided that the easiest way to recruit students is to poach them from other virtual schools. One such ad says, "Is your choice in a virtual school working for your student? You just want him to succeed. We see that he does." Never mind that the school has not started to operate yet; it is slated to open in August.
Advertising can be deceptive
How much does your school district spend on advertising? What message does your district send to the community? Who is the target audience? How does the advertising message compare to schools' test scores and graduation rates? Does the advertising convey your school's academic programs, extracurriculars, and athletics? How does the message compare to the way your school takes care of your children?
When it comes to school marketing in Indiana, there are no requirements for truth in advertising. We all know that advertising can be deceptive. While ads for the Indiana Virtual School offer hope, a way to escape, the school's actual performance is suspect. IVS had a graduation rate of 6.5% (lowest in the state) and student turnover of 46.4% in 2016-17.
In addition, there were 25 teachers and 3,376 students at IVS in 2017–2018 per IDOE Compass. That gives the school a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:135. And there is no indication if these teachers are full or part time. (For comparison, at Bloomington High School North, in Monroe County, there are about 1600 students and 117 teachers, meaning a teacher-to-student ratio of approximately 1:14.)
A low teacher-to-student ratio certainly leaves the school more money for marketing. Or for paying a company owned by the school's founder for space and management services, as detailed by Shaina Cavazos's award-winning Chalkbeat exposé. In 2015–2016, according to Cavazos' reporting, IVS only spent about 10% of the money it received from the state on actually teaching the students.
Indiana grades schools according to an A-F system, and according to the state grades, IVS is a failing school. In fact, all virtual charter schools in Indiana received F grades from the state in both 2016 and 2017, according to the State Board of Education's recent report (p. 20). They could be closed by their authorizers, only to replaced by yet another virtual school. As Cavazos' recent explorations of the peculiar origins of the new Indiana Agriculture and Technology School show, Indiana is the "Wild West" of education. There are very few rules for virtual schools to follow, but lots of money to be made.
Indiana's committee on virtual charter schools meets next week
This past session, our legislators killed three bills regarding accountability in charter schools (though not specifically about virtual schools) even though Governor Holcomb and State Superintendent McCormick called for improved accountability in virtual charter schools.
Finally, the State Board of Education has formed a committee to review virtual schools, five months after Holcomb's request for more accountability measures.
The State Board's committee on virtual charter schools will meet on June 12, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. in the Government Center South, Conference Room C, 302 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204. State Board of Education member, Gordon Hendry, is the head of this committee. You can reach him via email here, on Twitter @GordonHendry, and by phone here: (317) 232-6610.
If any of this concerns you, feel free to contact him.
And if you are considering virtual school as an option for your child, caveat emptor.
--Keri Miksza and Jenny Robinson