AUGUSTA — A legislative committee approved a bill Wednesday that would impose a moratorium on establishing virtual charter schools in Maine while state officials and educators come up with a plan to offer online learning tools to all Maine students by fall.

Under the amended bill, L.D. 1736, a stakeholder group would work with several school districts on a request for proposals to allow Maine students access to online resources through New Hampshire’s state-run virtual academy.

Bill sponsor Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, has said that he has already talked to New Hampshire officials about a possible partnership with Virtual Learning Academy.

The bill would also impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools in Maine from the time the request for proposals is issued July 3, and Jan. 15, 2015, when the stakeholder group would report back to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on a plan to provide online learning resources to Maine students, either with a virtual school or a website with multiple online education resources.

The committee voted 11-2 in favor of the bill, with dissenting votes from Republican Reps. Michael McClellan of Raymond and Matthew Pouliot of Augusta. The two said they supported the concept of the bill, but not the moratorium.

The bill now goes to the Legislature. If it becomes law, the moratorium will affect two applications under consideration by the Maine Charter School Commission. The commission will vote March 3 on whether to approve them to open in the fall.

The charter commission can still vote on the two applications while the legislation makes its way through the State House, but could take them no further if the moratorium is enacted.

Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the commission could also decide March 3 to approve a virtual charter application with conditions that would accommodate the Langley bill.

Lapoint said she “absolutely” supported Langley’s bill, except for the moratorium, saying the commission spent almost two years setting up strict oversight and benchmarks for virtual charter schools. But she welcomed being part of the stakeholder group to form Maine’s online learning options.

“It’s a good way to go, for both of us,” Lapoint said to Langley, as they talked after the committee hearing. Langley encouraged her to “keep on going” with the commission’s work, but noted that his intent is to have the current virtual school applications put on hold while the stakeholder group works.

Langley has said a state-run virtual school would give students and school districts the benefits of online learning while avoiding some of the risks in turning over administration of the schools to private companies. A portal would allow schools and teachers – or parents – to have a state-approved offering of online options.

Langley acknowledged that Gov. Paul LePage is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, and said he didn’t have a sense of whether he could collect the two-thirds vote needed to overturn a veto.

The bill does have bipartisan support: Langley’s bill has already drawn some Republicans who would otherwise oppose a moratorium, and some Democrats who would otherwise oppose a virtual charter school. Two Republicans on the Education Committee, Rep. Joyce Maker of Calias and Rep. Peter Johnson of Greenville both supported the bill.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday that the Democratic caucus supports the bill, and he expects both chambers to vote on it before the commission’s vote.

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

There are already many online educational resources available to Maine students and schools, from free 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 access the company’s 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. The University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System also offer many courses online.

Langley said he wanted the stakeholder group to be “folks that are committed to furthering virtual education in Maine,” and would include representatives from several areas, including the state education department, the charter commission, education advocates such as the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Principals Association and the Maine Education Association.

It could also include members from the home-schooling community, or national educational services providers such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore, the two companies providing the curriculum for the proposed virtual charter schools before the commission.

Virtual education is intended to be available to all Maine students for free, including public, private, charter school and home-schooled students.

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier, speaking to the committee later during a confirmation hearing, was asked if the department supported expanded digital learning as outlined in the Langley bill.

Rier said he did, although the department remains concerned about the potential cost and short time frame.

“The department is interested in supporting digital learning and expanding it,” he said. “It’s just one more step for students who may not have had access to those resources before.”

New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy served more than 9,000 students in grades 6 through 12 last year. The two states already have worked together on education; some New Hampshire students attend Maine schools that are closer to their homes.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com