AUGUSTA – Despite fierce objections from Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Charter School Commission will not consider two applications to open virtual charter schools this fall.
On Friday, commissioners stood by their decision from the prior week to hold the applications for Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy for the 2013-14 cycle because of concerns about school governance and quality.
LePage wrote a letter to the commission Monday arguing that they have enough time to give the applications a thorough review for a September opening and need to act promptly to give students more educational choices.
“If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state’s expectations, I urge their resignation,” LePage wrote.
At a special meeting Friday to consider LePage’s letter, commissioners reaffirmed their decision to spend more time evaluating the applications.
“We want to work with these charter schools and understand them better so that we can ensure they will be successful. They aren’t, in many states,” said Commissioner William Shuttleworth, Camden school superintendent. “In fact, they have had staggering failures in these states that we do not want to replicate.”
The commission received a 476-page application for Maine Connections Academy on May 25 and a 1,114-page application for Maine Virtual Academy on May 29.
A charter must be in place 60 days before a charter school starts classes, so commissioners want to negotiate and approve charters by early July.
Commissioner Dick Barnes, who is on the subcommittee reviewing the virtual charter applications, said the commission needs more than five weeks to authorize a charter that must be five years long.
The virtual charter schools have been proposed by newly formed nonprofit organizations that would contract with for-profit education service providers — Virginia-based K12 Inc. for Maine Virtual Academy and Maryland-based Connections Education for Maine Connections Academy — to provide the curriculum and educational software, hire and train teachers and administer the schools.
Students enroll in the schools full time and learn through videos, computer exercises and online interaction with teachers, as well as some book-based and hands-on work. Most are open to all grades, and the younger a student is, the more supervision they require from a parent or other adult.
K12 and Connections are the two largest operators of full-time virtual schools. K12 ran at least 49 schools in 23 states in 2010-11, and Connections has 25 schools in 23 states.
Barnes, a retired education professor, said it’s not clear the nonprofit governing boards will have the independence and resources to give them true authority over the schools.
LePage adviser Jonathan Nass told commissioners they should act now because Maine is suffering a “crisis” of failing schools.
“You have the responsibility and the legal authority to revoke charters of schools that are not progressing appropriately,” Nass said. “One approach might be to get these schools running, then take over a strong oversight role as they go.”
Bangor residents Celina and Dave Bernhardt asked the Charter School Commission to reconsider. They said their older daughter excelled in a virtual charter school in Florida and graduated high school at 16, while their younger daughter is struggling in a traditional public middle school and needs an alternative.
“These two companies that are offering to place virtual schools have a track record of success,” Dave Bernhardt said. “They’re not newbies in the market; they’ve created schools over and over. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt. They know what they’re doing.”
Some commissioners, however, noted that virtual charter schools have produced mixed academic results.
In a survey of education management organizations for the 2010-11 school year, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that three of 12 schools, 25 percent, managed by Connections met federal performance benchmarks. Thirteen of 41 K12 schools met those benchmarks, or 31.7 percent.
By comparison, 30.2 percent of Maine schools hit federal targets in 2010-11 testing.
Commissioner Don Mordecai, another member of the subcommittee reviewing the virtual schools, did not vote to defer consideration of the applications because he was absent from the earlier meeting. On Friday, he said he would prefer to reject them outright.
“There’s plenty of reason to reject them both,” he said. “If we did that and told them why, they would have the opportunity to go back and address those issues properly.”
Peter Mills, secretary of the board that applied to open Maine Virtual Academy and also executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said commissioners need to explain their concerns fully before the applicants can fix anything.
K12 sent the nonprofit organization, Maine Learning Innovations, a draft contract that Mills said is probably similar to one used in other states. Mills has identified several points of the contract that he plans to discuss with fellow board members and with K12, and he intends to hold them accountable.
“We have absolute power,” said Mills. “They could say, ‘Those conditions aren’t acceptable to us, we’re not coming,’ and we’d say, ‘Fine.’ “
Maine Connections Academy board President Ruth Summers did not respond to a call or an email seeking comment. Summers is the wife of Secretary of State Charles Summers and the former executive director of a scholarship organization for schools owned by Education Management Corp.
Commissioner Linda Doyle was absent on Friday, but all commissioners there approved sending LePage a letter explaining their decision.
The letter notes that commission members were not ratified until late December. They have been working since January, sometimes meeting twice a week. But because of statutory requirements for approving rules for the commission, they could not issue a request for proposals until May 1.
“As you know, we are hamstrung by lack of appropriations for administrative support, and the hard work has rested on the broad and willing shoulders of the seven commission members who have graciously and dutifully given up to 40 hours a week just on this work,” states a draft of the letter to LePage.
Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools. Some charters schools may offer innovative or alternative educational programs or specialize in areas such as the arts or environmental studies.
Nine groups said they intend to apply for charters. The commission has received five applications, and members expect one or two more before the June 29 deadline.
On Friday morning, before the special meeting, the commission held a public hearing for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which could convert from a magnet school to a charter school.
Commissioners also raised concerns about governance of the school, also known as MeANS. They want the MeANS board to have full control of the educational program and worry it will be too intertwined with Good Will-Hinckley, a sprawling campus off U.S. Route 201 in Fairfield. The organization’s residential school for at-risk students closed in 2009. The much smaller science academy opened in September.
Good Will-Hinckley provides facilities and some funding for the academy, and four members of its board will serve on the MeANS board. The Good-Will Hinckley board also will appoint all nine members of the MeANS board.
Two more public hearings are scheduled for Monday, both in room 202 of the Cross Building behind the State House. Baxter Academy of Technology and Science, a proposed high school in Portland, is scheduled for 9 a.m., and Cornville Regional Charter School, which would serve kindergarten through eighth grade, is at 1 p.m.