AUGUSTA — The Maine Virtual Academy, one of two virtual charter schools hoping to open this fall, has the budget, the dedication and the right educational services partner to be a successful school, its board chairwoman, Amy Carlisle, told the Maine Charter School Commission on Tuesday.
“I feel like we’ve given it everything we have as a board,” Carlisle said after a three-hour interview with the commission.
Maine Virtual Academy has contracted the services of K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation’s largest online education company. The other virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, contracted with Connections Learning of Baltimore for educational services.
K12 Inc. and Connections Learning were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation in 2012 which showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.
Commission Executive Director Bob Kautz asked the board how it handled such reports.
“We have talked to the vendor and said, ‘Tell us about this news story, is there any truth to it?’ and we’ve been satisfied with their responses,” Carlisle said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have to be extremely vigilant. We have to be extremely on top of the issues that can rise in this kind of school.”
She added, “If the commission has a question about an allegation or a story, we’d be happy on an individual story basis to ask the vendor to provide the truth behind it, or whatever the outcome was.”
The commission did not have specific follow-up questions, but its chairwoman, Jana Lapoint, noted members had heard from people opposed to virtual charter schools.
“Virtual schools can be very political,” Carlisle said. “Sometimes it’s hard to determine fact from when people have an agenda.”
Students in virtual schools get lessons delivered online with limited face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators. In Maine, charter schools are funded by per-pupil state funds – which follow students from the school districts where they live – but operate independently of public school districts and their elected boards.
K12 in particular has been the subject of many critical reports nationwide. A Florida state investigation found K12 had employed teachers there to teach subjects for which they lacked proper certification. The company also has come under scrutiny in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.
The commission turned down proposals from the two virtual schools in recent years, largely out of concern about the influence of the national companies, both of which came to Maine and recruited the original board members for the Maine schools.
Since then, the commission instituted a more rigorous selection and oversight process, such as requiring virtual charter schools to hire their own top school administrators and teachers to have weekly face-to-face meetings with all students.Maine Virtual Academy plans to open with 300 students in grades 7-12. Students attend classes online at the same time as instructors for at least one hour per week per class.
On Friday, the commission will interview the board of a third applicant, the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is affiliated with a Turkish imam. The interview will be at Central Maine Community College in Auburn from noon to 3 p.m., followed by a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m.
The commission will vote in March on which charter schools may open. Under a 2012 Maine law, up to 10 charter schools can be approved, and five have already opened.
Maine Virtual Academy is essentially a “turnkey” operation strongly controlled by K12, which provides the curriculum and teachers in one bundle, answering to a board-hired head of school. At Maine Connections, by comparison, the board would hire the teachers.
Maine Virtual Academy would directly employ only two people, the chief executive officer, or head of school, and the chief financial officer. To address the commission’s concerns about local authority, the board’s contract with K12 dictates that the director of instruction, although employed by K12, must report directly to the head of school.
Maine Virtual Academy officials also addressed questions from commission members Tuesday about signing up students and hiring their own teachers.
To enroll, a parent or student would call the K12 offices in Virginia, go through an online orientation, and sign a “compact” laying out expectations of the student and parent. “We want students to know what they are getting into when they come,” Carlisle said. “There are some misconceptions, one being that it is easy.”
Carlisle said that while K12 gave the board the option of hiring the teachers, the board decided it wanted K12 to handle that role since it had better resources and experience.
School officials couldn’t answer some questions, such as whether K12 employees get an incentive for successfully signing up a student to attend and the financial impact if the board chose to end the K12 contract. Commissioner Ande Smith also noted that the application doesn’t include the K12 product pricing. School and K12 officials said they would respond to the commission in writing before the March vote.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: