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Published: Thursday, 5/20/2004

Off to online school

HERE'S the "virtual" reality: K-12 education is moving from the classroom and into cyberspace. Charter schools are capitalizing on the change, and the trend is hurting public school districts' budgets. The districts are fighting back with their own digital academies, basically ensuring that education by home computer is here to stay.

When a suburban district like Perrysburg establishes an online program, Internet learning has certainly become mainstream. About 70 K-12 students (40 of them kindergartners) are enrolled in the Perrysburg Digital Academy. Some have health problems, others want to avoid social interaction at school, and others may have attention-deficit difficulties.

Their parents are among those who believe their children can do better outside the traditional classroom.

Students in 40 public school districts learn via home computers, and more local suburban schools plan virtual academies, including Springfield, Maumee, Sylvania, and Oregon.

They are, however, only playing catch-up with charter schools. Several thousand Ohio students already go to school in cyberspace. The Ohio Virtual Academy, sponsored by the University of Toledo, has 1,700 students enrolled. About 4,500 students are enrolled in eCot, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, sponsored by the Lucas County Education Service Center.

Many students fare well. Virtual academies interest those who want to work at a more advanced pace or want to work school around their jobs. While critics may argue that cyberspace learning is inferior, the fact is that when properly administered and supervised, the work is not easy.

Toledo Public Schools has online charter schools focusing on specific interests, such as teenagers who are pregnant or are themselves young parents, students with behavior problems, and dropouts.

While about 9,000 Michigan students in 300 high schools take courses online, they must combine cyberspace learning with conventional classes. Michigan law prohibits students from taking all their courses online.

But Ohio public schools don't have that luxury. When students leave and go to a charter school - online or otherwise - the per pupil state funding, $5,058, goes with them. That's why districts want to stop the exodus.

Public schools that start digital academies get $50,000 from the state and another $150,000 in federal funds. That's a nice incentive, but it's tempered by the requirement that districts pay fees - $2,500 for every student in K-8 and $3,500 for each one in high school - to the Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association, which helps public schools plan digital academies.

It's true that the social interaction of a traditional education may be forfeited. But the digital classroom is here, and schools need to reboot their concept of cyber-education. If they don't, students seeking online learning will continue to leave, taking with them much-needed public funds from public schools.



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