Most school days, sisters Kaitie and Bethany Fogal show up for their first class around 9 a.m., still in their pajamas, sometimes nursing a bowl of Froot Loops.
It's a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their home in Carlisle, Pa., to Einstein Academy Charter School, but the sisters, ages 15 and 16, don't leave home. They attend school by logging on to matching computers in their dining room, pulling assignments off a Web site and talking to teachers and classmates via e-mail, Internet chat rooms and instant messaging.
For many education reformers, the sisters and thousands of others like them -- an estimated 5,000 in Pennsylvania alone -- offer an appealing vision of the future of public education, with public schools serving up an individualized curriculum at a low cost to rural or underserved students.
Such ''cyber'' or ''virtual'' schools, as they're known, have taken hold and grown rapidly in the past two school years, but they face formidable obstacles, including aggressive legal challenges by school boards and questions about their finances and accountability.
Last spring, there were about 30 cyber charter schools in 12 states, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group.
''We're getting more and more away from bricks and mortar to define education -- and that's the way it should be,'' said Jeanne Allen, the center's president.
Bethany, 16, said she gets impatient with the school-provided computer and its slow, dial-up Internet service, but said the curriculum is ''definitely not easy.''
And she doesn't just take the basics either. This spring, she took Latin and Shakespeare, and the sisters spent about four to six hours a day on schoolwork. Taxpayers even helped pay for their kickboxing and gymnastics lessons at a nearby private gym.
Aside from the slow computer, Bethany said, the biggest drawback of the program is that she's home all the time.
''It does get to be a drag,'' she said.
The prospect of schooling thousands of students from a remote location has attracted many educators, including private investors such as former Education Secretary William Bennett. His company, K12, operates two cyber schools, with plans to expand to six this fall.
''This is not home school -- this is public school with a parent being the primary instructor,'' said K12 spokesperson Bryan Flood.
He said the schools use only certified teachers and a ''rugged, rigorous assessment system.''
Jason Barkeloo, who teaches science at Cincinnati's Virtual High School, contends that there are shortcomings to cyber schools.
Students at Virtual, a noncharter public school, are required to come to a central location to get assignments. But without formal classes, they don't get the benefit of learning science in a laboratory, Barkeloo said.
''These students don't get simple things like training in safety,'' he said, ''because there's no laboratory experience for that: How do use a Bunsen burner? How do you mix chemicals? How do you observe an endothermic or exothermic reaction when you can't feel heat?''
Barkeloo also said class discussions are limited because not all the students log on at the same time.
''The students are so isolated that you don't get the benefit of other peers,'' he said. ''You'll have five students ask the same question over a week-and-a-half.''
Union and school board officials say that, unlike other charter schools, the home-based approach of cyber schools makes them little more than online home schools.
Like the Fogals, many of their students are former home schoolers, but when they enroll in a cyber charter, the school demands the costs of educating them from the school district, which is obliged to hand over the money, even if the school operates hundreds of miles away, as with Einstein, or uses an unorthodox approach.
In Pennsylvania, per-pupil expenditures can be as little as $4,000 or as much as $12,000, depending on where a student's neighborhood school is located.
''That amount far exceeds the cost of educating a student in a cyber school,'' said Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. ''There's a huge profit motive here.''
Flood responds: ''We are a vendor like anybody else.''
Pennsylvania has become a closely watched battleground. A legal challenge to the state's cyber schools by Gentzel's group was dismissed, but the court said school districts may look more closely at the charters' books.
While the suit was pending, most of the state's 501 school districts refused to pay millions of dollars in per-pupil costs to the cyber schools, and hundreds of students left the schools after delays in getting computers and other materials.
The school boards association contends that fewer students are actually enrolled in cyber charter programs than the schools say -- and that the schools aren't accountable for student performance and records.
Allen said cyber schools keep track of their students as well as traditional public schools. ''They'd be crazy not to, because they wouldn't get paid.''
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