When Tom Franke teaches astronomy on Monday nights, he’s not at his chalkboard at Hopkins High School in Golden Valley, Minn. He does it from the den of his home, using his laptop computer to connect with 13 students statewide.

Using his computer’s mouse and microphone, Franke explains a diagram showing how astronomers determine the distance between earth and the stars. Students at home see his drawing appear simultaneously on their computer screens.

Most of the students send instant text messages to Franke saying they understand. But a red line appears on one student’s name. He’s raising his hand electronically. Franke clicks on the boy’s name, giving him a chance to speak to his teacher and classmates.

“I know you just went over this,” said the youth. “But I would like it explained one more time.” So Franke, a pathfinder in Minnesota’s venture into virtual classrooms, takes another swing at it.

A ‘Wild West’ landscape

State officials estimate about 500 Minnesotans take part in online learning, out of 850,000 public students. About a dozen school districts and charter schools are leading the way, but important policy questions—such as what types of programs should get state dollars—are unsettled, limiting the number of students involved.

“This is a critical innovation in education that we need to get good at … relatively quickly,” said state Sen. Steve Kelley, D-Hopkins, who has worked on the issue for several years.

Among the issues: If students who are currently home-schooled—a growing movement in Minnesota, with some 20,000 students—take an online course offered by their local high school, does the state pay for it? What if a private-school student wants to take the course? Which district gets the state per-pupil funding if a student in a rural school wants to use his or her school’s computer lab to attend Hopkins’ astronomy class?

Across the country, other states and school systems are wrestling with similar questions.

At least 14 states have a planned or operational state-sanctioned, state-level virtual school in place, according to “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” a 2001 report commissioned by the Distance Learning Resource Network. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia.

In states that haven’t developed a statewide online learning program, the virtual schooling landscape is starting to resemble the Wild West, with tensions sprouting between bricks-and-mortar districts and the online schools competing for their students—and the state dollars that accompany them.

In Wisconsin, an online charter school launched by the Appleton School District this fall is being challenged in court by the state’s teachers union. The Wisconsin Education Association Council argues that private companies and school districts could reap major profits by supplying online education for much less than the state aid amount set for students who transfer under the state’s public school open enrollment law.

Virtual schools in other states—most notably Pennsylvania—have faced similar challenges. Last year, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association challenged the legality of that state’s seven cyber charter schools in court, arguing the schools were educating mostly home-schooled children at the expense of local school districts.

The court dismissed the case, but handed the state’s school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have the opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by cyber charter schools.

In June, Pennsylvania passed a law to partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transferred authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of cyber charter schools from local school districts to the state education department, thereby tightening accountability for the online schools.

While they appreciate the gesture, some local superintendents say it still leaves unanswered questions.

“There’s no question that the legislature did put some more constraints on cyber schools, making sure that districts can get annual reports and have more timely accounting and so forth,” said Allan Thrush, superintendent of the Elizabethtown Area School District in Lancaster County, Pa. “That’s appreciated, but the funding issue is still a major, major issue.”

An ‘unlimited’ market

Such tensions have yet to occur in Ohio, but some observers there say it’s only a matter of time. With at least 4,100 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 virtual 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 education department records.

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

The Fairfield-Union, Ohio, school board this fall approved a contract of about $50,000 with Marion, Ohio-based Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association (TRECA) to help develop the Fairfield-Union Digital Academy, Superintendent Clark Davis said.

The school district, southeast of Columbus, wants to stop its 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.

Michael Carder, executive director of TRECA, said his organization’s goal is to help school districts develop online programs, either in the form of a separate charter school or as part of the district’s own course offerings.

He acknowledged 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.”

Seeking solutions

In Minnesota, legislative leaders say next year’s session could prove decisive on determining that state’s approach to virtual schooling.

With a deficit looming between $1.6 billion and $2.7 billion, the cost of expanding the definition of a student from a person seated in a classroom to include one miles away from a classroom, typing away on a computer, will be a key issue.

“If we can help kids get more opportunities, that’s what we need to work on,” said Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, chairwoman of the Minnesota House K-12 Education Finance Committee. “But money will probably play a part in it, with the budget as tight as it is.”

Current state rules limit the ability of schools to seek state funding for offering their classes to home-schooled students by requiring programs to include five hours of instruction inside a public-school building each week. But some older programs don’t face such requirements and are allowed to market their programs to home-schooled students. Some programs, including Hopkins’, can offer classes to home-schooled students through a temporary fund established by lawmakers last year.

While online learning in Minnesota is still a work in progress, Hopkins’ Franke and other participants are impressed by what it can offer.

With new technology that allows students to hear his voice and to ask questions verbally as well, Franke’s 90-minute weekly computer chat/lecture has the vibe of a real classroom. There’s the friendly banter between teacher and student. It’s clearly a relaxed atmosphere.

“There is a niche for it, but it isn’t the same as face-to-face,” said Franke, a nine-year teaching veteran. “But I can still build relationships with people even without seeing their faces. That’s important to me.”

Franke’s students said they like the intimacy of the smaller class. It seems more orderly, and they don’t miss the regular classroom.

“What’s to miss?” said Alex Shnayder, a Hopkins High School student. “This way there is no one to bother and slow you down. So as a result you get work done faster.”