Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Public systems turn to online charter schools



By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

Districts around Ohio are opening online charter schools to recapture students lost to independent operations.

Six of the state's 10 online charter schools are sponsored by public school systems.

School districts and other critics say independent online schools drain public money from traditional systems even while they spend less to educate children than a bricks-and-mortar school.

"If online schools are going to happen, why not us?" said Steve Clippinger, director of educational information and technology services with Lancaster city schools. "We're actually in the education business and have been doing it for a long time."

His southeast Ohio district opened Lancaster Digital Academy last fall to offer a local option for students contemplating an online school. The 5,800-student district lost 16 students to other online schools this school year.

The independent schools say they're providing a competitive option for students who don't fit into the traditional school environment.

"If I wasn't such a nice guy, I'd say, `I told you so,'" said Jeff Forster, superintendent of the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which has about 3,500 students.

He said districts critical of online charter schools are now having second thoughts as they see their students embracing the process. He said he welcomes the competition.

A bill up for a vote today in the House Education Committee strengthens districts' ability to open online charter schools.

The online schools enroll about 20 percent of the approximately 28,000 charter school students.

Lawmakers created charter schools in 1997 as an alternative to traditional public schools.

In Akron, the teachers' union grew so frustrated with independent online schools enrolling Akron students that it started Akron Digital Academy.

The district, with 29,000 students, lost 193 students to online charter schools this year. The enrollment loss cost the district about $1.1 million.

Neil Quirk, union vice president and chairman of the digital academy's board, said he opposes charter schools and hopes they're shut down eventually, including his own.

"But unfortunately the law is out there, so the best we can do is try to mitigate the negative impact," he said.

The union hopes to return to the district some state money it receives for its charter students.

Ohio Virtual Academy, sponsored by the University of Toledo, enrolls almost 1,000 students. It's one of several schools around the country using curriculum and some staff provided by K12, the for-profit education company created by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett.

Bryan Flood, a K12 spokesman, said Bennett founded the company on the premise that public education should have more choices.

"So to the extent that virtual schools are expanding ... that's a good thing, we support that," he said.




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