It appears one more rift could be developing between traditional and charter schools. This time it is between traditional schools whose at-risk students leave and online charter schools where they enroll.

Public charter schools that offer students a pathway to graduation by taking courses at their own pace with online instruction are burgeoning. But lately charter school administrators have noticed that a large number of their students are at risk of failure, and they wonder whether traditional schools are dumping on them students who are failing academically or facing expulsion.

Districts deny the charge, but the General Assembly wants to find out for sure, so it has directed online charter schools to collect data about when and why students enroll this year.

The State newspaper reported that the Whitmore online school began the 2011 school year with about 140 students. Another 314 enrolled a month into the school year. To date, 213 of those new students have withdrawn from the school, and 70 didn’t attend a single class.

It certainly takes self-discipline to succeed in distance learning.

Students who enroll thinking it will be easier than traditional learning are often surprised, and defeated, by the demands.

That makes it even more egregious if, indeed, at-risk students are being advised to try online schools where, instead of getting extra help and guidance, they are responsible for setting their own schedules.

Schools are under pressure to raise their scores — to show the public they are making progress. Failing students can make that difficult to do.

Charter schools are under particular pressure to succeed because their charters can be rescinded at any time.

You would expect the graduation rates at online schools to be lower than traditional schools. And they are significantly lower — less than half the average of traditional schools.

Still, distance learning is growing for a number of reasons.

Students need to work at times other students are in class. Some are caring for a child or parent. Others are uncomfortable socially. At the college level, the driving reason is often cost. Online learning is far less expensive.

Distance learning serves a need in the education system. But it is not a quick fix for problem students. And educators who have students’ best interests at heart should advise them accordingly.