A state panel’s decision to turn down two full-time virtual charter school applications earlier this week has continued to draw fire from the schools’ supporters.
Amy Carlisle, president of the local board for the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, wrote the charter school commissioners to say she “was disappointed and blindsided” by their decision. She also vigorously denied that her board lacked independence from K12 Inc., the Herndon, Va., based online education company that would manage the school, hire and fire its staff and headmaster, and provide curricular materials and assessment data.
“I am at a loss for understanding how as a non-profit governing board, we are being publicly labeled as overtly dependent on an education service provider that we would have ultimate authority over,” Carlisle wrote. “Not a single one of our board members is beholden to K12 Inc., but all to the ideology behind school choice.”
The charter commission denied the school’s application in a unanimous vote Tuesday, saying that its review team “has no confidence that the governing board of the Maine Virtual Academy can functionally manage the daily education and fiscal responsibilities without staff.”
The commission also rejected an application for another virtual charter school that would have been operated by Baltimore-based Connections Learning, a subsidiary of publishing giant Pearson.
At digital charter schools – which exist in 27 other states – students get the vast majority of their education online at home, with taxpayers in their school districts paying the tuition.
Reached by telephone, Carlisle defended her board’s independence and expressed confidence in members’ ability to manage their proposed contractor, K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company.
“There are no facts that support the idea that our board is not independent from K12,” she said of the volunteer body. “We all feel we bring something to the table and that we have an arm’s length relationship with K12.” She said any notion of a lack of independence was “a perception, not a reality.”
As previously reported, after the Maine Legislature passed a 2011 law allowing creation of charter schools, K12 Inc. approached former state Sen. Peter Mills and others, encouraging them to form a board. Mills has said the board looked at other potential partners before choosing the Virginia company, which he said had unparalleled resources.
Carlisle said she became involved after approaching K12 Inc. and asking how she might become involved in a charter school effort. She was put in touch with the nascent board members. “They didn’t reach out to me, I reached out to them,” she said.
“Those of us who sit on the board, we come at this as concerned parents and citizens, not by being recruited by K12,” she said. “The parties have a mutual understanding of being in this together.”
This is the school’s second application. Last year, its bid was not approved because of similar concerns about the degree to which the board could exercise oversight of K12. The latest application had few changes in regard to the school’s governance.
For this reason, the chair of the Charter School Commission says the rejection should not have come as a surprise.
“When you’re working on it for the second time, you’d better shape up,” Jana LaPoint said. “It is very, very obvious to us that (the two proposed virtual schools) are not clear of the organizations they are hiring, because they don’t have day-to-day control of those organizations.”
“These are not small things to tweak,” she said. “They are major, major substantive changes that effect the whole operation.”
K12 Inc. and Connections Learning were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and how their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.
The commission has come under fire this week for rejecting the two proposed virtual schools and two of three “brick-and-mortar” charter school applicants. Gov. Paul LePage blasted the commission in a fiery Wednesday news conference, claiming they had rejected these and two brick-and-mortar charter schools because of “intimidation” by the state’s teachers union and school superintendents association and called for the commissioners to resign.
“I am asking them for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away,” LePage said of the commissioners. “We don’t need you. We need some people with backbones.”
Speaking on WGAN radio Friday morning, Education Commissioner Steven Bowen said the governor’s accusations stemmed from a meeting Bowen held with the charter commissioners and LePage’s senior policy adviser John Nass. Bowen said one of the charter commissioners had said in the meeting that “the fact that the school board association had gotten lawyered up intimidated him.”
“My concern with what happened this week is the potentially chilling effect it would have on all the folks in Maine who may have good ideas and interesting and innovative approaches to create charter schools,” Bowen said.
LaPoint said one of her fellow charter commissioners had made such a comment, but the person hadn’t said the intimidation affected his or her decision on the charter schools. She said the commissioners had already come to those decisions prior to learning that the Maine Superintendent’s Association was considering legal intervention if one of the applicants was approved.
“If you had any idea how independent our commission feels about how we go about out work and the steps we do!” LaPoint said. “When you get subcommittees and the full commission all voting unanimously on these applications, that’s not coming from intimidation.”
“If we were to be intimidated, we would be intimidated by the governor,” she said. “He didn’t intimidate us, either.”
This is not the first time LePage has lashed out at the charter commission. He also suggested they resign in June, after they declined to approve the same two virtual schools.
Bowen defended the governor’s intentions. The governor “believes that the educational opportunities that he got saved his life, got him off the street and turned him towards the future he’s got,” Bowen told WGAN. “He’s extraordinarily passionate about education. Does he always say things the way I would say them? Probably not. And he would be the first to say that.”
LePage, who fled an abusive home at age 11 and has said he had poor grades in high school, was able to attend Husson College through the intervention and financial assistance of two local businessmen.
“He wants the right thing to happen for kids,” Bowen said.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: