AUGUSTA — As state policymakers review new performance and governance standards for virtual charter schools, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing a proposal that would create a state-run online academy.
The proposal, L.D. 1736, is sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and co-sponsored by several Democrats on the Education Committee. Langley said a state-run virtual school would afford students and school districts the benefits of online course learning while avoiding some of the risks inherent in turning over the administration of the schools to companies. The bill is supported by several education groups that have been vocal opponents of virtual charter schools, including the Maine Education Association, the union representing public school teachers.
Despite that coalition of support, the proposal faces obstacles, including opposition from the LePage administration. That resistance centers on a key provision in the bill that would freeze the approval of virtual charter schools until the state-run academy became operational by Aug. 1, 2016.
The moratorium on the Maine Charter School Commission’s authorization of virtual charter schools was a non-starter for opponents, including Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs at the Maine Department of Education. Friedman said a two-year freeze would squelch access to one or more virtual charter schools that could open as soon as this fall.
Friedman was referring to two virtual school applicants that were previously rejected by the charter commission but that recently won initial approval last week. The Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy were rejected in the early round of votes by the commission, partially because of concerns that the schools would not be sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide the curriculum and largely manage the schools.
Representatives of the two applicant schools testified against the bill on Tuesday. Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who is the president of the board for Maine Connections Academy, said Langley’s proposal would be a “financial debacle, costing millions of dollars in taxpayer money.”
The charter schools would be publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.
The commission will take a final vote in March on Maine’s newest charter schools.
Despite the opposition to Langley’s bill, supporters said the proposal had a successful precedent in Vermont and New Hampshire, which are among several states that operate virtual schools, allowing public school districts to blend traditional learning with an online curriculum. Approximately 24 states allow the so-called “blended” curriculum, according to the 2013 Keeping Pace report by the Evergreen Education Group.
According to that report, the Virtual Learning Academy in New Hampshire is a statewide virtual charter school that provides supplemental courses to students in public school districts. The school serves grades 6 through 12 and had 9,170 students in fiscal year 2013, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. The school has been featured in The New York Times and Forbes Magazine for receiving a $450,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement its blended curriculum with local school districts.
Approximately 50 Maine high schools offer students online courses, according to Robert Hasson, with the Maine School Management Association. Hasson said a state-run academy would help coordinate those offerings and avoid duplication. Under the proposal, the state-run virtual school teachers would be certified Maine educators.
“One can envision a day when excellent Maine teachers are able to share their lessons with a much wider audience,” Hasson said. “Imagine what this would do for rural small schools that simply can’t afford the breadth of curriculum that would better challenge their students and keep them engaged.”
Susan Campbell, with the Maine School Boards Association, said the proposal would expand course offerings for poorer districts while controlling costs. Campbell said virtual charter schools would cost sending school districts an average of $8,500 per student. She said the costs would be much lower if the state ran its own academy.
The charter schools in New Hampshire, including the Virtual Learning Academy, receive $5,500 per student, according to the Evergreen Education Group report.
However, opponents said the Maine venture would be costly. Friedman, with state Department of Education, told lawmakers on the Education Committee on Tuesday that replicating the New Hampshire academy could cost about $6.5 million.
The LePage administration has been a strong advocate of charter schools and virtual charter schools, saying both are critical to reforming the state’s education system and accommodating different student needs.
While charter schools have their share of critics, the virtual charter schools have come under additional scrutiny, locally and nationally, for performance and governance issues that involve concerns over whether the schools are sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide curriculum and manage the schools.
The Maine Charter School Commission created new screening requirements to address such concerns.
For example, the two virtual school applicants previously rejected by the commission won initial approval last week after saying that local school boards will hire and employ the administrators of the schools.
Langley said Tuesday that he was supportive of charter schools, having voted in 2011 to make Maine the 41st state to allow them. However, he said something was missing from the virtual charter schools.
“In my opinion, people (were missing), the teacher and fellow students, what we think of as the learning environment,” he said.
The proposal is scheduled for a work session next week.
This story has been corrected to show that the virtual charter schools are public schools.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: