With thousands of students now enrolled in four online charter schools in Ohio, state officials say there is a “huge spike” this year in the number of Ohio districts that have expressed interest in starting their own digital charter schools.

At least 192 organizations have told the state of their interest in applying for startup funds for charter schools, most of them school districts, according to state Department of Education records.

At least 63 of these are districts proposing a “digital academy,” such as the possible Danville Digital Academy in central Ohio, the records show.

And at least 39 of these districts have signed contracts with Marion, Ohio-based Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association (TRECA) Digital Academy to help develop their own online schools, said TRECA executive director Michael Carder.

Such interest “is a huge spike, and it’s a drastic departure from our experience in the past,” said Steve Burigana, executive director of the department’s Office of Community Schools.

Ohio’s charter school law allows local districts to operate charter schools, but only a handful have taken advantage of the law. Most of the state’s charter schools are operated by private groups or companies.

Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools free from some state regulations. More than 120 charter schools are expected to be open this fall in Ohio, enrolling about 30,000 students and receiving about $166 million in state funding.

Online charter schools typically provide computers for students to use at home, a full grade-by-grade curriculum, and instruction supervised by certified teachers.

Schools are starting to see that online education can be done successfully and want to do it themselves, Burigana said.

“In some cases they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Maybe it’s not a bad idea. We have a segment of our student population that can’t be served by traditional methods, and this may be an opportunity to serve our students through a more nontraditional approach.'”

Burigana said it’s unclear how many of the schools ultimately will open their own charter schools.

“There’s only so many students and their parents who would choose to pursue this option,” he said. “I’m not entirely convinced that the saturation point is that far away.”

The four online schools scheduled to open this fall will enroll at least 4,100 students, according to state records, but that figure is expected to climb.

The Fairfield-Union school board is ready to approve a contract of about $50,000 with TRECA to help develop the Fairfield-Union Digital Academy, superintendent Clark Davis said.

The school district southeast of Columbus wants to stop students from enrolling in other online schools and make sure they are getting a good education if they choose the digital route, he said.

“I think privateers are trying to jump into this market and, frankly, I don’t have a lot of confidence that many of the privateers can offer services as well as those of us in public education,” Davis said.

Carder said TRECA’s goal is to help districts develop online education courses, either in the form of a charter school or as part of the district’s own offerings.

He agreed that the market for full-time students taking online courses from home may be limited. But the future of education may be students taking a mix of traditional and online courses, and that market is unlimited, he said.

“The bulk of kids out there are kids who want to be in both worlds, the student taking four traditional courses and two online classes,” Carder said. “That’s a huge, huge group of people out there, and nobody is working with that group of students right now.”

The four Ohio-based online charter schools that will be open this coming school year are TRECA, the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Toledo-based Alternative Education Academy, and the Virtual Community School of Ohio.

Only one—the Virtual Community School of Ohio in Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus—is chartered by a school district.

A fifth school, the Ohio Virtual School, part of a chain of online schools operated by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett, also is expected to open this fall.

Links:

Ohio Department of Education
http://www.ode.state.oh.us

TRECA Digital Academy
http://tda.treca.org/index.shtml