AUGUSTA — After facing opposition to the idea of creating a state-run virtual academy, a state legislator says he is switching gears and now suggests the state have a “digital learning exchange” that would function as an online educational resource warehouse for all Maine students.

“My goal all along with this one was finding a way to expand opportunities for students across the state to digital content,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who sponsored. L.D. 1736. He introduced the amendment during a work session Tuesday in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

But questions about how to create and pay for an online digital warehouse, and track its usage and performance, derailed the discussion.

“I would caution the committee that this is not as simple as we would think,” said Jeff Mao, director of Learning Technology for the state Department of Education.

Mao noted privacy concerns and the cost of hiring developers. He also described the overall idea as the “holy grail” of online education – but one that no one has figured out how to accomplish.

For starters, private education companies wouldn’t want to share their resources with competitors, or have their materials on a third-party site such as the “portal” Langley proposes, Mao said. Langley asked the committee to table discussion of the measure until Wednesday, when he would return with a reworked bill.

CONTROVERSIAL MORATORIUM

The most controversial part of Langley’s original proposal – which is still in the amended bill – is a moratorium on any virtual charter schools until the state’s option of either a state-run academy or a digital learning warehouse becomes available.

Langley acknowledged that he introduced the bill after being approached about a moratorium on virtual charter schools, which he said he wouldn’t support on its own. But he was willing to combine it with an online learning alternative.

The original bill was 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.

But the moratorium aspect of the bill dried up some support, particularly since there are two virtual charter school applications under active consideration by the Maine Charter School Commission. The commission will vote March 3 on whether to approve them to open in the fall.

“I understand where the (state) Education Department is and where the administration is on this. They’re not going to stand up and volunteer to help me. I get that,” Langley said Tuesday, acknowledging the politics surrounding the bill. “We’re in muddy waters right now. I could use some more time to think.”

The committee will take up the bill again at 9:30 Wednesday.

The overall idea of state-sponsored online digital resources seemed to have support from several members of the committee.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I’ve all along felt this tension between our recognizing there is an immediate and urgent need and opportunity for virtual learning, and simultaneously a realization that we need time to ensure ultimately that we’re doing something thoughtful,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a co-sponsor of the bill. “I hope that the action we take with this committee recognizes both of those.”

CURRENT ONLINE RESOURCES

Mao and others noted Tuesday that there are already many online educational resources available to Maine students and schools, from free Khan Academy-type websites to educational cooperatives such as Virtual High School, which already serves about 50 Maine high schools. In Virtual High School, the school pays a fee or has a teacher who can teach an online class to gain access to the company’s online educational resources.

The state also offers AP4ALL, a program that provides free online Advanced Placement courses to students who can’t get them at their local high school.

Langley’s original bill was modeled on successful state-run virtual charter schools such as those in Vermont and New Hampshire, which have similar demographic issues as Maine.

On Tuesday, Langley said he was interested in looking at whether Maine could partner with New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, which last year served more than 9,000 students in grades 6 through 12.

Earlier, a Maine Department of Education official said replicating the New Hampshire academy could cost about $6.5 million.

The state-run virtual schools allow public school districts to blend traditional learning with an online curriculum. Approximately 24 states allow the so-called “blended” curriculum.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: ngallagher@pressherald.com