State yanks plug on virtual schools

Pamela Bless thought she had found an exciting alternative to traditional instruction when she enrolled her three children in a new online charter school slated to open this fall.

Instead, she’s wondering where her 13-year-old triplets will end up after the Indiana General Assembly decided not to fund the schools.

"My kids were as or more disappointed than I was," said Bless, of Greenwood, Ind. "They feel that it’s a statement that children are not important to officials in state government."

Ball State University had proposed opening two virtual charter schools–the Indiana Virtual Charter School and Indiana Connections Academy–this fall, with a total of about 2,200 students.

The budget proposed by the GOP-led Senate would have allowed the two schools to open. Democrats who control the House, however, objected to having any state money fund such programs, and the final budget approved April 29–the last day of the legislative session–explicitly stated that virtual charter schools cannot receive funding from the state or any distribution of property taxes.

The decision has left parents scrambling to sort through their options, said Julie Price, with the newly created group Indiana Families for Public Virtual Schools.

"They are angry beyond words; they are upset beyond words," Price said. "They are panicked, and they don’t know what to do for next year."

If the virtual schools use private funding, they will not be able to open as public schools chartered by Ball State, said Larry Gabbert, director of the university’s Office of Charter Schools.

"At this point, we don’t have plan B," he said.

Ron Brumbarger, chairman and CEO of the Indiana Virtual Charter School, has urged parents to wait a few weeks while the school considers ways to open its online doors.

"Shame on our legislature for being shortsighted and disappointing these 2,000 students around Indiana," Brumbarger said. "Shame on our legislature for not being forward-thinking for how to create a competitive Indiana, instead of slamming the brakes on innovation. They should be embarrassed."

Opponents of virtual charter schools said the programs were unproven and would have taken more than $11 million annually from traditional public schools. Other critics said the online instruction would be a form of taxpayer-funded home schooling, because students work at home with a parent or other learning coach.

"We have a responsibility to fund and maintain public schools," said Rep. Joe Micon, D-West Lafayette. "We don’t have a constitutional requirement to publicly fund those who choose to home-school their children."

Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools has said some students who enrolled in virtual charter schools come from home-schooled backgrounds, but not the majority of them, because many home-schooling parents want to be free of state regulations that the schools must follow.

Many parents are continuing to fight for virtual charter schools by contacting lawmakers even though the legislative session is over, Price said.

Bless said the Indiana Virtual Charter School offered everything she needed for her triplets, who are currently home-schooled and suffer from health problems such as severe asthma and headaches.

"It was an answer to my prayers," she said.

According to a report issued last fall by the North American Council for Online Learning, at least 24 states already have state-led virtual school programs under way. Enrollment in online K-12 courses in the United States has exploded in the past year, increasing by as much as 50 percent in some states, the report suggests.

Indiana Virtual Charter School, based in Indianapolis and run by for-profit K12 Inc. of Virginia, planned to accept students statewide in grades K-10 this fall. Indiana Connections Academy, based in Muncie, Ind., and run by for-profit Connections Academy of Maryland, planned to accept students statewide in grades K-11 in the fall. Both schools planned to expand to grade 12 by the 2011-12 school year.

As of press time, the schools were searching for alternative funding so they can open this fall as planned.


Indiana Virtual Charter School

Indiana Connections Academy

Ball State University Office of Charter Schools

North American Council for Online Learning

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