The numbers for virtual schools must be grim when a major supporter of charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation, calls for a divestment in online charter schools. In a piece that ran in EdWeek a week ago, Marc Sternberg and Marc Holley of the Walton Family Foundation wrote that three research studies funded by Walton found "...stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students' academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states. If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing."
How might this bear on Indiana, where the number of students in online charter schools has grown exponentially since 2010?
Some of the virtual charters in Indiana draining students and funds from brick-and-mortar districts include the Indiana Virtual School with 1,318 students (parent company: Business Consulting Incorporated), authorized by Daleville Community Schools; Indiana Connections Academy with 3,705 students (Pearson), authorized by Ball State; and Hoosier Academies with 3,861 students (K12 Inc.), authorized by Ball State.
The groundwork for the diversion of public school funds to online charters was laid by ALEC and its model virtual public schools act (SourceWatch). According to SourceWatch, Indiana virtual school operators K12, Inc, and Connections Academy were involved in the writing of that bill.
Virtual charter schools receive tuition-based funding at 90% of brick-and-mortar funding. If brick-and-mortar funding averages about $5000 per pupil--probably a low estimate--virtual charter schools are receiving about $40 million in Indiana public school funding this year. Their authorizers (Ball State and Daleville Community Schools) will receive about $1.2 million of that through the 3% administrative fee that authorizers can charge.
Since 2006, the parent company for Hoosier Academies schools, K12 Inc., has donated over $81,000 to some influential people in state government: Mitch Daniels, Bob Behning, Dennis Kruse, Brian Bosma, Teresa Lubbers, the House Republican Campaign Committee, the Senate Majority Campaign Committee, Carlin Yoder, Tim Brown, Jeff Thompson, Ed Clere, Tony Bennett, and Mike Pence. Of that $81,000, a token $500 went to the Indiana Democratic Caucus and another $500 to Democrat Pat Bauer--but both of those contributions were back in 2006. After that, it must have been clear that K12, Inc., didn't need the Democrats.
Virtual schools have representation on our State Board of Education in the form of board member Dr. Byron Ernest, head of schools for Hoosier Academies, appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma. Hoosier Academies' income from state grants in the period from 2011 through 2013 was $53.5 million (a small fraction of Hoosier Academy students attend a brick-and-mortar school in Indianapolis).
How long will it take our supermajority to pay attention to the evidence of subpar performance of virtual charters? Anyone who looks up their data on the IDOE compass site will discover confirmation of the high turnover and extremely low scores and graduation rates found by the studies financed by Walton. These studies discovered that online charter students fell "a full year behind their peers in math and nearly half a school year in reading, annually." Will legislators shift taxpayer education dollars back into brick-and-mortar schools? Or will $80,000 in campaign donations from K12, Inc., since 2006 slow that process down?