AUGUSTA — The Maine Charter School Commission voted unanimously Monday to approve the state’s first virtual charter school, while rejecting applications from another virtual school and a school whose backers allegedly have ties to an imam at the center of political upheaval in Turkey.
Maine Connections Academy, which was approved, has contracted with Connections Learning of Baltimore, a company that operates virtual schools in 18 states. The school’s board chairwoman is Amy Volk, a Republican state representative from Scarborough who co-sponsored the bill in 2011 that created charter schools in Maine.
The commission will work out charter language with Maine Connections Academy, which plans to open this fall with an initial enrollment of about 270 students in grades 7-9 and grow to a maximum of 750 students in grades 7-12.
Carol Weston, a former Republican state legislator and a board member for the school, said, “This has been a long road, but one that is going to bring opportunity to Maine students.”
Maine now has five charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. By law, the state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021.
Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, getting lessons online and having limited face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators. Supporters say the schools are good for students who don’t “fit” at traditional schools, from top athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied. Virtual charter schools also have drawn sharp criticism, in part because local school boards outsource their management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.
The virtual school that was rejected Monday, Maine Virtual Academy, was backed by K12 Inc. of Virginia, which has come under fire in other states for poor student performance.
Maine Connections Academy’s school board will hire the head of school and the teachers, and use Connections Learning to provide materials and curriculum.
Several commission members said a top concern for them was making sure the school board would have adequate oversight. “We are very satisfied that this is a Maine-run school,” said commission member John Bird.
State Education Commissioner Jim Rier praised the vote Monday.
“The commission’s action today is an exciting step forward for Maine families,” Rier said in a prepared statement. “Maine must continue to develop educational options that inspire kids, and both traditional and public charter schools play an important role in that.”
The Legislature is now considering two bills that could change the way charter schools operate in Maine.
One would impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools for as long as a year while the state considers a plan to open a state-run virtual charter school. That bill is expected to be vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, and it’s not clear whether there would be enough votes in the House and Senate to override a veto.
The other bill would give virtual charter schools less state funding.
Both bills could affect Maine Connections Academy, by stopping any talks with the commission until the moratorium ends, or by affecting its financial model if the funding mechanism changes significantly.
Supporters of virtual schools have taken a wait-and-see approach, moving ahead with the Charter School Commission work even as the bills are debated.
Rier noted the moratorium bill in his statement, saying it “could potentially close the academy just a month before school starts, putting enrolled students in limbo.”
PANEL’S APPROVAL SETS CONDITIONS
As part of its approval of Maine Connections Academy, the commission set out a list of further conditions that must be part of the charter, including requirements for the school to hire a third party to evaluate the work done by Connections Learning, and to survey students and parents annually about their satisfaction with the school.
The commission also said the school’s contract with Connections Learning must allow the school board to use another provider, for example, to teach a particular subject or class, and have a provision to allow the board to end the contract at its discretion, with “reasonable notice.”
“To be truly independent, they needed (this) right to end this contract on unfettered terms,” said Commissioner Ande Smith.
The commission also wants the school to interview any teachers or students who leave, and forbid Connections Learning from using any recruiter with a financial incentive to bring in students.
Enrollment cannot be any less than 243 students at any time, and cannot be more than 390 students until the commission is “satisfied” with the school’s educational performance.
“We see them as points of clarity for us,” said Julie Hannon, a Connections Academy board member. The school has the capacity to cover the additional costs, she said.
TWO APPLICANTS FAIL TO MAKE GRADE
The commission rejected the applications from Maine Virtual Academy and the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which was scrutinized for its alleged ties to the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen.
Smith said he was so “incensed” over “the lies” in the Lewiston-Auburn school’s application that he wanted the commission to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office. The commission did not act on that, but said it would consider the matter later.
“These are material falsehoods,” said Smith, referring to the group’s claim that it had letters of support from a former mayor of Lewiston and the city’s economic development coordinator. “I can’t tell you how incensed I am,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”
No one from the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School attended the meeting.
The commission rejected the Maine Virtual Academy with four votes in favor of the application and three against it. The application needed five votes to be approved.
Some commissioners raised concerns that some local board members were not as engaged as others, while others noted that K12, the nation’s largest for-profit operator of virtual schools, had inconsistent results in other states and couldn’t provide the commission with SAT and Advanced Placement test results for its students.
“I’m not sure some good and some bad is good enough for me,” Commissioner Shelley Reed said of Maine Virtual Academy’s application. Commissioners Heidi Sampson and J. Michael Wilhelm also voted against the application.
Commissioners who voted to approve Maine Virtual Academy said they felt the school had met the commission’s requirements and could be successful.
The chairwoman of the school’s board, Amy Carlisle, left after the vote and declined to comment.
In 2012, a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections Learning showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of student achievement.
The Charter School Commission aimed to head off problems that surfaced in other states by creating more rigorous requirements and tightening oversight of virtual charter schools. The commission noted the problems with the companies in other states, but said they occurred in schools with more students and in states with less oversight.
Under Maine law, the boards of virtual charter schools must directly employ the top school officials, generally the head of school and the chief financial officer.
FALLOUT FOR ONE APPLICANT?
The vote to deny the Lewiston-Auburn school was unanimous. The same group was rejected last year when it tried to open a charter school in Bangor.
“The committee is not confident that the board has the capacity to create, open and operate a high-performing school,” said a report from a review team led by Chairwoman Jana Lapoint.
Among the concerns were that its academic program and proposal didn’t align with Maine law and requirements, and the budget didn’t have funding for enough special-education teachers. The review team also questioned how the school would “involve the greater community.”
Several commission members said they were more put off that the application had incorrect or misleading information. Heidi Sampson read a long statement detailing many of her concerns, mostly regarding the school’s ties to the imam Fethullah Gulen. She also noted that the school had misrepresented its support from local leaders, teachers and community members.
“I find this very troubling,” said Sampson, who urged the organizers not to apply again in Maine.
“This school has effectively destroyed any potential for building trust with the false representation of individuals such as the city’s mayor,” Sampson said. “Mayor (Robert) MacDonald has since made it very clear that he and many of his city councilors are not pleased with the false representation of their position on the application. Is that not an illegal offense?”
After the meeting, Smith said he would work with the commission on whether to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office.
He said he was “particularly troubled” by false information in the application, including the alleged support of the former mayor of Lewiston and the city’s economic development director, who had met with the school’s backers but did not support the school itself.
Smith and Sampson said they objected to language in the review team’s recommendation, saying the school was “strongly urged to reapply in the next round of applications.”
“They lied to me once, I don’t want to hear from them again,” Smith said.
That language was struck from the recommendation, and the commission added a sentence noting that the application contained false information.
The Gulen schools are often top performers and have a secular curriculum, but have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, hiring and financial practices.
Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that a recent corruption and bribery scandal was orchestrated by an Islamic movement led by Gulen.
The school board members denied that the school and its backers had any ties to Gulen.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: