CLEVELAND - Enrollment in online schools in Ohio has passed 30,000, more than 12 times the number in 2000 when the first "virtual" school opened in the state.
Only Arizona had more students enrolled full time in online schools in 2010-11, according to an annual report by the Evergreen Education Group.
Online students attend classes online and do lessons by computer, often at home, typing in tests and papers to be reviewed by a teacher elsewhere.
Most Ohio students enrolled in virtual schools, about 90 percent, attend one of the seven statewide online schools, according to a story Sunday by The Plain Dealer and the StateImpact Ohio collaboration among National Public Radio and Ohio public-radio stations WCPN, WKSU and WOSU.
Although scattered around the state, the online students combined would make up the third-largest district in Ohio -- about the size of the Cincinnati schools. The online schools are charters, independently operated but publicly funded.
Robert Mengerink, head of Cuyahoga County's Educational Service Center, said online schools are convenient but, "You can't sleep in the back of the room in an online course."
Ohio has lifted a moratorium on creating new online schools, which had been imposed in 2005. In 2013, up to five new online schools can start in the state, though the Ohio Department of Education says none has yet announced plans.
Gary Miron, co-author of national studies about online schools and their operators for the National Education Policy Center, which receives some funding from the National Education Association, said Ohio has fewer requirements for online schools than most other states. He cited items like financial reporting, student-to-teacher ratios, and how long students have to stay in a school or pass state tests in order for schools to receive state money.
Ohio legislators have postponed establishing rules about how online schools should teach and be evaluated. Last year's state budget set a deadline: If the legislature doesn't take action by January, standards set by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning will automatically take effect.
Most of Ohio's full-time online schools are operated by local school districts and educational service centers.
Ohio's online schools have become a big business. The state paid online charter schools $209 million in 2010-11 to educate students, or an average of $6,337 per student.
Results are mixed at both for-profit and district-run schools. Online students have lower graduation rates than those at traditional schools. They attend college at a lower rate. At the same time, other measures have shown online students learning as much as, or more than, students in many districts.
In 2010-11, all seven statewide online schools met value-added measures, criteria the state has used the last few years to determine if students make a year's worth of academic progress in a year's time.