As 5-year-old Arabella squirmed in a spare bedroom adorned with watercolors, her mother read aloud from a computer screen the tale of two benevolent dragons.
The kindergartner was learning in what to all appearances was a home-school setting. But while Mommy is her teacher and classes are held in their Laguna Hills condo, public funds paid for the computer and the half a dozen boxes of drawing paper, workbooks and paint delivered at the start of the school year -- "everything but yarn," said Arabella's mother, Brenda Golestan-Parast. Arabella is one of a growing number of children enrolled in cyber charter schools, which blend the flexible rules of publicly funded charter schools with home-schooling methods -- to the consternation of some home-instruction advocates. National education groups, meanwhile, object to public funding of cyber charters, saying they operate for a fraction of the cost of brick-and-mortar schools and are essentially home schools with only nominal professional oversight.
The nation's roughly 30 cyber charter schools serve an increasing number of parents who want to teach their children at home but lack the know-how or money for materials and don't mind the regulations. Home schooling, by contrast, isn't publicly funded. But neither is it subject to standardized testing, teacher requirements and achievement goals, as are charter schools.
The number of cyber charter students in the state doubled in September with the opening of an Oakland-based nonprofit called California Virtual Academies, or CAVA. About 850 children are now enrolled in CAVA, one of the state's six cyber charter providers. Nationally, an estimated 16,000 students are enrolled in charter schools with some element of online study.
About half of CAVA's students previously were home-schooled. The rest include children in show business, those with parents who are long-haul truckers, and some who left other schools for religious reasons, said Bernie Hanlon, head of the CAVA schools.
For most, the big draw is that kids learn at their own pace.
"Sometimes we tend to think that one size can fit all in public education," Hanlon said. "Public schools have an obligation to offer what we do, an option for parents and children who ... want or need something different than a classroom."
Some cyber charters give lessons on a set schedule, with students logging on from home. The state's longest-running one, Choice 2000 Online Charter School in Perris, which opened seven years ago, offers classes for 375 students in grades seven through 12.
Parents guide children through lessons with oversight from a mentor-teacher who monitors their work and attendance by e-mail. And Arabella's teacher visits each of her 22 students and their parents about once every three weeks.
Even as the concept gains popularity -- at least three more states are expected to allow cyber charters in the 2003-2004 school year -- opposition is growing. Home-schooling advocates, fearing government regulation, helped block one online curriculum provider from opening cyber charters in two states.
Litigation is pending in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where more than 100 school districts have sued to halt cyber charters, arguing that they drain money from regular public schools.
California schools receive about $4,600 to $5,600 per student each year in state funds, depending on a child's grade level. When a student signs up for a certified cyber charter school, that state money follows the child. All a parent has to do is sign up.
K12 Inc. of McLean, Va., is one of several companies that provide lesson plans to home-schooling parents and cyber charter schools such as CAVA. For those materials, the company charges about a fourth of what California spends per pupil.
CAVA officials said the remaining state allotment covers instruction supplies and the loan of a computer to each student. Any funds left over are spent on curriculum development, officials said, although other educators are skeptical about where the money really goes.
"It seems like these [cyber charters and] companies are invoking buzzwords like 'school choice' to cover up an effort to make a profit out of education," said Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn., a union representing public school teachers.
K12 cofounder and chief executive Ron Packard said a desire to provide educational options, not profit, drives the company's interest in promoting cyber charters.
But California legislators, heeding concerns about cyber charters profiting from public-school allocations, decided last year to cut state funding by 30% over the next three years for charter schools whose students are taught at home. Schools, however, can request that the state exempt them from the cuts.
Parents who have enrolled their children in cyber charters say they provide their children the best possible education. The curriculum and a mentor's support sold Loretta Rieger on CAVA for 9-year-old son Blaine.
"I don't want to have to spend my time developing a curriculum or writing lesson plans," said Rieger, of Orange County's Ladera Ranch community. "I just want to teach."
A Strict Regimen
Unlike home schools, cyber charters still must follow regulations. And California has some of the most strict rules.
For example, students must be taught five days each week, not just meet a specific hours-per-year requirement as in other states. Cyber charter mentor-teachers must be certified like any other public school teachers.
Spokesman Gary Larson of the California Network of Educational Charters, which represents about 70% of the state's more than 400 charter schools, said such regulations merely defeat the schools' purpose.
"Innovators like cyber charters shouldn't be regulated to death
But public-education advocates say such schools should be subject to the same oversight as any others that receive public funds.
"It just seems strange to divert public money into a home with no qualified teacher at the same time we're trying to raise the bar for education through accountability," said Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Assn.
The NEA last year formally objected to charters providing home schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide such home instruction over the Internet. The organization recommended that public funding for such schools should be cut.
K12 executive Packard says he doesn't understand the objection. "The money should follow the child," he said.