The Columbus, Ohio, city school district will develop an online high school in an effort to retain hundreds of students and millions in state funding the district expects otherwise to lose to charter schools next year, school officials said.

Columbus Public Schools officials say the district’s new school would mirror the services of internet-based charter schools, which reportedly have drawn more than 1,000 students away from the city’s public schools already.

At least 16 online charter schools operated in Ohio this past year, enrolling 22 percent of the state’s 38,248 charter school students and receiving about $50.6 million in state funds.

The online schools provide students with a modem and computer, and teachers assigned to them keep in contact by eMail and phone.

The district’s plan for a virtual school of its own is still “on the drawing table,” said spokesman Michael Straughter. But students who are leaving the Columbus schools in favor of online charters “obviously want something from the district that we need to provide,” he added.

Straughter said the district estimates its online school would serve about 125 students starting in September. He added that four community centers around the city would provide in-person tutoring and computers for students who don’t have online access at home.

The district has begun surveying exiting students to see what it could do to keep them.

The growing volume of those students has thrown off the district’s enrollment projections, which means predicted funding isn’t materializing.

Students who enter charter schools take about $5,000 in state aid with them. The district expects the loss of state funding to charter schools to rise to $34.6 million by 2008, up from $18 million this year.

In 2000, a contractor predicting enrollment for the Ohio School Facilities Commission assumed there would be no change in the number of students choosing charter over public schools in 10 years.

Now, the number of those students in Columbus alone has more than tripled–to 3,995–and the city expects to lose several hundred more next school year. Columbus had a total enrollment of more than 62,000 students this year.

A multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade school buildings necessitates accurate enrollment projections, said Rick Savors, a spokesman for the school facilities commission.

“We want to know how many students we’re having to build for,” he said. “It doesn’t do us any good to build too much or too little.”

The cost of building upgrades for just Columbus and the five other largest districts in Ohio–Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, and Toledo–is $5.74 billion. The state would pay $2.95 billion of that.

Charter schools have their own financial problems. Since 2002, one in four of those audited has ended a fiscal year in the red.

Despite those financial troubles, the state Department of Education estimates that 15 more charter schools could open in Franklin County during the next school year, bringing the number of privately run, publicly funded schools in the county to 40.


Columbus Public Schools