AUGUSTA – Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee voted Monday to advance three bills that would either change the certification requirements for taxpayer-financed virtual charter schools or delay their operation in Maine.

The committee votes represent a rejection of virtual schools by Democratic lawmakers, several of whom have questioned the effectiveness of institutions through which students receive most or all of their education online.

Similar legislation has been considered in other states, which have been beset by concerns about the oversight and operation of such schools by for-profit corporations.

Each of the bills was endorsed by an 8-4 vote Monday, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Democrats on the education panel said the state should not subsidize virtual charter schools. They also criticized the schools because they are operated by corporations seeking to profit from online schooling.

“I just can’t see where a full-time virtual school does much for a student,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor. “I can see the value in some (part-time) situations, but I’m just fundamentally against it.”

Republicans objected to the votes, saying the state should not dismiss innovative learning opportunities.

Republicans acknowledged there are questions about the effectiveness of virtual charter schools, but they argued that the Maine Charter School Commission could adequately vet applicants.

The party-line vote on each measure reflects the growing political divide over education, particularly charter schools, which in Maine receive a slice of public education funding.

Democrats have accused the LePage administration of trying to undermine public education by pushing charter and virtual charter school legislation and subsidizing both with taxpayer dollars. Republicans counter that Democrats are protecting the status quo by rejecting education reforms.

On Monday, the committee voted to pass a moratorium on the authorization of virtual charter schools. The measure, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would prohibit creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the Maine Charter School Commission can draft and report out “best practices” for the schools.

Alfond, who has previously supported digital learning initiatives, told lawmakers last month that there was mounting evidence that virtual charter schools underperform. He cited a study by the National Education Policy Center at Western Michigan University which found that one in three K12 Inc. schools reported making adequate yearly progress in 2010.

Another proposal that won committee support Monday would require that virtual charter schools and charter schools be run by nonprofit agencies. Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, testified during the public hearing that profit motives should not determine educational opportunities for Maine students.

The third proposal, sponsored by Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, would require that teachers at virtual charter schools be Maine-certified.

All the proposals will likely gain passage in the Democratic-controlled Legislature but be vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, who has been a vocal advocate of virtual schools.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has said the proposals are designed to halt the development of virtual schools. K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published on Sept. 2, 2012, that showed how they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

K12 has been at the center of controversies in other states, including Colorado, Tennessee and Florida. Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among a host of states that have considered enacting moratoriums on virtual charter schools.

In January the charter school commission rejected virtual charter school applications proposed by K12 Inc. and Connections Learning.

The day after the charter commission decisions, LePage held a pair of news conferences during which he said charter commission members were intimidated by advocates for public schools. He also called for the resignation of charter commission members who were afraid to do their jobs.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com