Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler offered cautious support Monday for virtual charter schools while the Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said the online schools are “not the right answer.”

The candidates commented after the Maine Charter School Commission approved the application for Maine Connections Academy and rejected two others, for Maine Virtual Academy and the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School.

Their views differ from that of Gov. Paul LePage, whose strong support for charter schools, virtual or otherwise, has been well-established since he took office in 2011. The Republican governor has pushed for the expansion of school choice and sees charter schools – independently run schools that operate on public dollars but often offer alternative curricula – as an important piece of that.

When asked about the poor track record of some charter schools, Cutler said he supports virtual charter schools but does not oppose a one-year moratorium to “fully evaluate alternatives.”

State Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, has proposed one-year moratorium on for-profit virtual charter schools. The bill, which could keep Maine Connections Academy from opening this fall, awaits further votes in the Legislature.

LePage has said that he would veto any moratorium.

Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman said the candidate is less likely to warm up to virtual charter schools, even after a one-year moratorium.

“A number of studies have found that virtual charter schools don’t serve students well,” said Lizzy Reinholt.

“Studies by organizations such as the National Education Policy Center have found that students in virtual charter schools failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress at rates that are worse than traditional public schools,” she said. “In addition, students in the virtual charter schools fell between 2 and 11 percent behind the state average in reading and between 14 and 36 percent behind the average in math.”

Cutler said he supports virtual charter schools in principle as a way to “apply new technologies to improve our kids’ futures,” and he praised the Maine Charter School Commission, saying it has rigorously vetted the companies that have applied.

“Along with other alternatives, virtual charter schools may improve outcomes for students and families for whom traditional instruction is not working and may add value to public education in Maine,” Cutler said in a written statement.

Michaud said he supports technological advances in the classroom but not the virtual charter schools approach.

“Maine has an opportunity to create innovative virtual learning tools, but it needs to be done right,” he said. “What we need is a student-focused, Maine-based solution that brings innovation to the classroom.”

In 2012, the Maine Sunday Telegram revealed that Maine’s efforts to recruit virtual charters were being shaped in ways that benefited two companies, K12 Inc., the parent company of Maine Virtual Academy, and Connections Learning of Baltimore, which backs Maine Connections Academy.

Cutler said he read the report “carefully and with great concern.”

“Both the commission and the Legislature are coming to grips with the question of how we make good cyber education alternatives available to as many Maine kids as possible,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell