Ohio's three Internet schools will receive about $600,000 this year for enrolling 114 children from Mahoning County.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
Deborah Teleha of Boardman is just the kind of person Bill Hyde wants to meet.
Teleha's two children, Matthew and Allegra, are enrolled in the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a Toledo-based charter school that provides home-based instruction over the Internet to nearly 3,000 children across Ohio.
Bill Hyde is superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, which plans to start its own Internet charter school next school year.
Hyde is banking that parents like Teleha will jump ship, yank their children out of ECOT and enroll them in the new local school.
That would mean that hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and local funds now going to ECOT and two other statewide Internet charter schools would stay in Mahoning County, Hyde said.
"It would be a possibility," Teleha said about putting her children in the new local cyber school program. "I would have to check it out and see what all's involved."
Countywide effort: The new Internet school would be the first countywide effort in Ohio to compete head-on with ECOT, TRECA Digital Academy in Marion and the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy in Akron, Ohio's three Internet charter schools.
Hyde and other supporters of the local endeavor say the move not only keeps taxpayers dollars in the county, but it also allows local education officials to have some control over the curriculum.
"If this is something that these kids want, then I believe educationally that we can provide the best services," said Lou Ramunno, superintendent of West Branch schools, which has eight pupils enrolled in ECOT.
"And we're not going into this for profit. We're going into it to provide the best educational options that we can."
Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools that operate independent of local school boards. Ohio has 68 charter schools, including five in Youngstown. Pennsylvania has 77.
How this works: Cyber charter schools receive state and local funds -- about $5,000 per pupil in Ohio -- to provide pupils with a computer, printer, Internet hook-up and state-approved curriculum at each pupil's home.
There are no buildings or classrooms; pupils receive instruction online at home and are in contact via e-mail with teachers who could be hundreds of miles away.
There are 30 such schools nationwide, according to the Center for Education Reform. Pennsylvania leads the nation with seven; Ohio has three.
Cyber schools in both Ohio and Pennsylvania have been the source of much criticism. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and several school districts have filed lawsuits, questioning the legality of cyber schools.
In Ohio, a state audit revealed a $1.7 million overpayment to ECOT in its first year, and the Ohio Department of Education has come under fire for its handling of the online schools.
Ohio's three Internet schools enroll about 114 children from Mahoning County, education department records show. For those pupils, the schools will receive about $600,000 in state and local funds this year.
That's money the Mahoning County ESC, which provides support services to the county's 14 public school districts, wants to keep in the county.
"It would stop some of the drain to some extent," said Ben McGee, superintendent of Youngstown public schools, which has about 60 pupils enrolled in the statewide charter schools.
And that's one of the reasons why the ESC is planning to start its own cyber school next school year, Hyde said.
Approach: But the reasons go beyond money. Hyde said his office has been bombarded with complaints from local residents about the service provided by ECOT and the two other statewide Internet charter schools.
"We honestly feel we can do it better," he said.
"We're going to have people with the educational background, experience and expertise," Ramunno said. "I'm not sure the other [cyber schools] have that."
The ESC has received preliminary approval for the school from the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, which Hyde said is one of the agencies in Ohio allowed to sponsor charter schools.
Hyde said the ESC surveyed the parents of ECOT and home-schooled pupils in Mahoning County, and both groups said they would be interested in a local program.
Like the statewide schools, the local Internet program would provide pupils with computers and other equipment in their homes, but instruction would not be completely over the Internet, Hyde said.
On occasion, pupils would gather at sites throughout the county to meet one another and their teachers.
Hyde said he hopes the school can start in September, and he estimated initial enrollment of about 50 pupils.
Although a first in Ohio, Mahoning County's response to the Internet school phenomenon isn't unique.
What's in W. Pa.: In Pennsylvania, public school superintendents in Mercer, Lawrence and Butler counties opened the Western Regional Virtual Charter School in September to combat the loss of pupils to cyber schools outside the three-county area.
The school enrolls 161 pupils, said Jill Manczka, distance education-planning coordinator for Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV. The unit is an arm of the state that provides educational services to school districts, similar to Ohio's educational service centers.
Manczka said the school districts were paying as much as $6,000 for every pupil enrolling in the state's other cyber schools. With the local school, the cost is only $2,000, she said.
"Given the choice, we would prefer not to have cyber charter schools at all," she said, "but we realized that the reality is that they're here to stay."