Vigo County School Corp.’s new virtual school could become a model of success for the concept in Indiana.
The state needs such a good example.
The Vigo Virtual Success Academy holds structural advantages over other online-based Hoosier schools, whose troubles made headlines this summer. VVSA is part of the local public school district, overseen by a publicly employed superintendent and a community elected school board, and subject to state accountability requirements, just like Terre Haute North High School, Sarah Scott Middle School or West Vigo Elementary School.
That format of checks and balances differs from two online charter schools embroiled in controversy after a state investigation. The Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy were accused by investigators of inflating their enrollments to continue receiving state per-pupil funding totaling $40 million for students that had moved out of state, been expelled or, in one case, died. Both institutions will close by the end of the 2019-2020 school year, as a result.
The scandal has exposed a few of the many inherent flaws in the Indiana Statehouse’s bear hug of national education reformers’ wish-list ideas. Oversight of the expanding charter schools and publicly funded private-school voucher system does not compare to requirements for state public schools.
By contrast, the Vigo Virtual Success Academy has an opportunity to show how an internet-based school can function with accountability and educate young people. The school, for students in grades 9 through 12, launched last week.
Of course, as Vigo Countians well know from the local district’s own past legal problems, the mere presence of administrators and school board members does not guarantee proper oversight or transparency. Yet, the democratic system also gives citizens a role through voting, and that has led to changes at the VCSC, yielding more openness and public scrutiny.
Vigo’s virtual school fills an academic need. Kids that struggle in classroom settings because of medical or emotional issues can get instruction on a computer from state-licensed, online teachers. Home-schooled children and those with disciplinary problems can do the same.
The academy also meets a fiscal need for the school district. The VCSC has taken a $2.3-million hit in state funding, annually, through county-resident kids enrolling in virtual schools based outside Vigo County. Last year, 367 county kids took classes from online schools elsewhere. State funding to the VCSC averages $6,362 per pupil, so the loss of hundreds of students also affects the schools system’s cumulative resources.
VVSA’s initial enrollment exceeded the expectations of its principal, Robin Smith, and corporation administrators. Fifty-two teenagers enrolled in the virtual school, including 23 who did not attend VCSC schools last year. Enrollment by other students during the 2019-2020 school year, which started Tuesday, also is possible. “I expect we’ll see spikes in between trimesters,” said Bill Riley, the district communications director.
Superintendent Rob Haworth believes the school could reach 150 students within two years, and will generate about $1 million a year. Its expenses over a two-year period would total around $174,000, he told the Terre Haute City Council on Thursday.
Under Haworth’s guidance, the VCSC is making changes to prepare for future needs in its operational budget and building renovations. Both expenditures will require voters’ approval through referendums this fall and in 2021. The establishment of the virtual school shows a commitment to adapt to 21st-century realities. Its success, and that of its students, would show to the community the district’s academic approach is working. Finally, its transparent financial conduct would remind state officials of public education’s value.