Ball State approves state's first virtual charter schools


A state teachers union official was quite blunt: “This is a sham!”

The fraud, according to Dan Clark, deputy director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, is not just the opening this fall of Indiana’s first virtual charter schools. It is the state funding the schools will receive.

“We don’t believe the Legislature ever intended to do this,” Clark said of the funding going to online schools. Ball State University this month announced that it is authorizing five new charter schools, including the Indiana Virtual Charter School in Indianapolis and the Muncie-based Indiana Connections Academy. The other, more traditional charter schools are in Ft. Wayne, Gary and LaPorte.

“Ball State has long been a leader in the development and promotion of educational innovations and best practices for all public schools, traditional and charter. We are pleased to continue our work with the approval of these five schools, particularly Indiana’s first virtual charter schools, which is the next innovation in public education,” Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora said in making the announcement. “Not every child can or will reach his or her potential in a traditional school setting, and virtual charter schools offer parents another public education option to help their children succeed, no matter what their circumstance.”

In the virtual charter schools, between 50 percent and 100 percent of the instruction will be through virtual distance learning, online technologies or computer-based instruction. Ball State officials said at least 14 states now offer virtual charters.

What concerns Clark and other opponents of virtual charter schools is the amount of money going to cyber charter schools that would otherwise be going to each student’s home school district. He said since virtual charter schools would have little costs for facilities, property and casualty insurance, transportation and a host of other general fund obligations, they should not receive the same level of funding as other public schools, charter or traditional.

“Clearly, they don’t have the costs of a regular public school. They are going to get the full dollar [in state funding]. They will claim they need all the dollars and that doesn’t make sense,” Clark said. “They are making a mockery of the financial people in the state Legislature.”

But virtual charter schools do have costs — and “substantial ones,” according to Ron Brumbarger, president of Indianapolis-based BitWise Solutions and head of Indiana Virtual Charter’s board. That a virtual charter school has few costs “is a big misconception” he said.

Teacher costs account for as much as 75 percent of a school’s budget, and Indiana Virtual Charter will employ roughly 50 teachers for the approximate 1,500 students it hopes to enroll for the fall, Brumbarger said, in order to achieve the targeted student-teacher ratio of 3-1.

In addition, the school will supply a computer, Internet connectivity and other computer-related needs, such as curriculum, to the home of each student, Brumbarger said. No public school in the state has a computer to student ratio of 1 to 1.

“We will have a teacher who is responsible for each class,” he said. And there will be “a contract with a parent and school to insure that Johnny or Susie is making progress.”

The federally funded National Charter School Clearinghouse also said the cost of a virtual charter school is greater than that of a traditional school because of the requirements for technological equipment and electronic curriculum. The cost for electronic curriculum can range from $900 to $2,400 per child a year on top of the usual costs for teachers and administrative staff, said Ronald Hall, the director of the Exton, Pa.-based 21st Century Cyber Charter School in suburban Philadelphia.

“We’ve created a program that leverages technology, along with daily supervision by parents or other responsible adults and state-certified teachers, to deliver a curriculum that meets or exceeds Indiana’s academic standards in every area,” Brumbarger said in a statement when Ball State made its announcement.

But what concerns Clark is that for-profit companies will provide each student with the interactive, multimedia material required for each class. Thus, those companies will be getting public funds that might otherwise be headed to public schools, where parents must foot the bills for books and other materials.

The Ball State authorization requires that the school have an administrative office, and Indiana Virtual Charter’s office will be at a currently undetermined location in downtown Indianapolis, Brumbarger said. He said downtown Indy was selected because it is centrally located in the state. But he also admitted that a Marion County location will allow the school to claim higher per-student funding than if the school’s location were in a more rural area.

Charter schools receive public funding, just as traditional public schools do, but they have greater freedom in staffing, teacher salaries and curriculum selection than traditional public schools. They must be open to all students and they generally fill their rosters through a lottery selection held in the early spring.

The state’s four-year public universities, plus the mayor of Indianapolis, have the power to approve public charter schools. While they authorize charter schools, neither the universities nor the mayor of Indianapolis operate the schools and they retain the right to rescind a charter if a school fails to meet performance standards.

Ball State is the only university currently authorizing charter schools in Indiana and has 19 in operation, with six more scheduled to open in the fall. Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s office has 16 charter schools operating in Marion County.

Virtual charter school supporters around the country say enrollment in the schools come primarily from students who cannot easily participate in person-to-person instruction, such as children with disabilities who have a difficult time attending regular schools, and students in youth detention centers. But they also entice home school students to return to public education.


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