Cyber Charter Schools, Part 2: The Controversy

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Jane Wagner: Oh here you know what? It's 41, and then you go to 42. Remember you've got to watch your numbers.

It's mid-morning on a Tuesday in early September, and Jane Wagner is helping her six-year-old daughter Becky with her numbers. Wagner has homeschooled for 20 years. But this year, the Northfield Village resident decided to enroll three of her kids in the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Jane Wagner: They have a nice weigh station here. I guess we're gonna do some experiments with feathers. They've got all kinds of cylinders, thermometers, everything.

Wagner says she was drawn to the materials, curriculum, and particularly the organizational help provided by the Ohio Virtual Academy, and says she has renewed energy and excitement about her kids' education. OHVA enrolled about 2,500 students this year, up from about a 1,000 when it opened in 2002. Its growth mirrors the meteoric rise in cybereducation across the state. But not everybody is happy with that.

Pat Schmitz: Most states are really wrestling with what to do with these cybercharter schools.

Pat Schmitz is deputy director of legal services at the Ohio School Boards Association, which is highly critical of charter schools.

Pat Schmitz: There are some very legitimate concerns right now as to whether they are subject to sufficient oversight, and the Report Card data published in recent weeks suggest there are some real problems.

Indeed, charter schools did perform poorly in the Ohio Department of Education's most recent evaluations. Dozens are in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency, while just a handful are listed as Effective or Excellent.

As for the state's 41 cyberschools, few have actually been evaluated; they're still in the two-year grace period before assessments are made. Most that have been tested, though, have not done well. Josie Drushal is director of the TRECA Digital Academy, which is listed in Academic Watch.

Josie Drushal: We have more than doubled our size and students coming they have been not been with us at all - very little time - and yet we're responsible for their test scores previously.

Also listed at Academic Watch are Akron Digital, the Alternative Education Academy, and the Virtual Community School of Ohio. The state's largest virtual school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is in Academic Emergency.

These results are red flags to some legislators, especially those who have serious concerns about Ohio charter schools.

State Senator CJ Prentiss is pushing for a moratorium on charter schools. She says these schools bear little resemblance to what legislators envisioned back in the 1990s when they crafted the state's charter school law.

CJ Prentiss: This was to save our children. This was the grand new experiment to save our children.

At that time, State Senator Prentiss voted for this educational experiment. But over the years, she says, her enthusiasm for charter schools has waned.

CJ Prentiss: The moratorium doesn't just mean that you stop the growth, but it means that you stop the growth and re-think a) the cost, b) the drain on existing public schools, and assess how do we measure children's progress because, again, these are public dollars.

Funding has always been one of the central concerns about charter schools for Prentiss and others. They argue that charter schools drain much-needed money from traditional schools. And then there's the question of profit motive. Why grant online charters access to state funds equal to that afforded to brick and mortar schools? Don't they have much lower overhead costs? Josie Drushal of the TRECA Digital Academy acknowledges that they do.

Josie Drushal: You do not have such things as bus drivers, and lunch duty, and cafeterias.

But Susan Stagner, head of Ohio Virtual Academy, says she needs every bit of per-pupil money she gets from the state.

Susan Stagner: I know it takes $5,000 to operate this because I've had to watch every single penny in this budget the last two years to make sure we balance it.

Perhaps its expenditures are one reason OHVA is - so far - the highest-rated online charter school in Ohio. It sends boxes full of workbooks, science equipment, musical instruments, and art supplies to families enrolled in the school. That's in addition to providing certified teachers and a fully developed curriculum. Still, OHVA is only rated at Continuous Improvement - not a rousing endorsement, but a solid passing grade.

If you want a rousing endorsement, though, you need only walk into the makeshift school room on the second floor of a Garfield Heights home, where sixth-grader Monica Williams says she's thrilled to be starting her second year at OHVA.

Monica Williams: Well there's just so many things that keeps your attention and it's really, really fun.

Cynthia Williams says Monica is thriving in cyberschool. But is her experience the exception or the norm? If the legislature puts the brakes on charter schools, maybe it will come up with a way to figure that out. In the meantime, every indication is that charter schools will continue growing quickly across Ohio - in real space and in cyberspace. Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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