Online charter schools in Ohio must have telephone lines and computer equipment hooked up in students’ homes before school starts if they expect to count the students as enrolled. These are terms outlined under an overhaul of the state’s charter school law signed by Gov. Bob Taft Jan. 7.

The change was made in response to concerns that arose the past two years when a few schools received state aid for students before making equipment available to them.

The law means online schools now will have to invest in equipment beforehand instead of waiting to see how large their enrollment might be, said Steve Burigana, who oversees charter schools for the state education department.

Enrollment in all 135 of Ohio’s charter schools hit a record 32,792 students this school year, according to education department records. The schools will receive about $195 million in state aid, or about 2 percent of the state’s overall education budget.

Of the charter school students, 7,118 are enrolled at nine online schools—from tiny London Digital Academy, with 27 students, to the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (eCOT), with 3,665.

The online schools will receive about $38.3 million from the state this year, or about 19 percent of total charter school funding.

The new charter school law expands the number of charter schools in Ohio, sets new rules for sponsoring charter schools, and gives schools more freedom to borrow money.

Despite the growth of online charter schools, the law has only a few provisions for such schools. They typically provide students with internet connections and computers at home, then assign teachers who communicate by eMail and phone.

The law will require some face-to-face meetings between teachers and students in online schools, and it will require the schools to install filtering software to block obscene material. The frequency of face-to-face meetings is left to the discretion of the schools’ operators, a change from an earlier proposal that would have required face-to-face meetings every eight weeks.

Lawmakers also removed proposed education department rules meant to increase the success of online students. Lawmakers said they didn’t have time to consider the rules and didn’t want to overregulate the schools.

Two years ago, a state audit found that the education department overpaid eCOT $1.7 million during its first two months in 2000, providing money for students even though they did not meet enrollment standards.

The state now requires online charter schools to report enrollment monthly, instead of twice a year. They must provide verification that equipment has been received for each student, Burigana said. A year-end audit examines the accuracy of enrollment figures.

Last year, Akron-based Alternative Education Academy had to get permission from the state to let a few parents use their own computers while school computers were back-ordered. The online school has 662 students.

The new law would prevent schools from asking for that kind of temporary arrangement, Burigana said. However, if students join an online school in mid-year, they can be counted toward the school’s enrollment, provided the school is making a good-faith effort to secure the necessary equipment.

Alternative Education Academy agrees with the new law and reports the delay in getting computers was an isolated problem, said Mark Thimmig, president of the Akron-based White Hat Ventures, which runs the academy.

Being connected online first and having it verified “is a critical part of delivering [cyber] education, and we would not expect to consider a school fully active until we have done that,” Thimmig said.

See these related links:

Ohio Department of Education

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow