AUGUSTA — Maine’s first virtual charter school reached a June 1 deadline nearly 50 percent short of the 243 students it’s required to enroll for the 2014-15 school year, with 127 committed to attend.
To give Maine Connections Academy more time, the Maine Charter School Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the enrollment deadline to July 15.
The extension means public school districts that will lose funding for students who switch to the online school may have less time to plan or adjust their budgets for the upcoming school year. The charter school commission tried to offset the impact by requiring Maine Connections Academy to notify districts where students have stated interest in the virtual school.
John Larouche, an attorney representing Maine Connections Academy, said the impact should be minimal because the school is the only one recruiting students from public schools. Meanwhile, he said, the school has made “unusually swift progress” toward opening in the fall.
Larouche told the commission Tuesday that the school has 127 commitments so far. It has received 316 applications and 201 letters of intent. Larouche said it takes about a month to move a letter of intent to a full commitment, a long process that he attributed to state regulations and paperwork.
So far, he said, 56 school districts have been notified that resident students have expressed interest in attending the academy.
The commission also voted unanimously Tuesday to change the school’s contract to allow Maine Connections Academy to sign a lease at 75 John Roberts Road in South Portland.
The school originally was supposed to be based in Scarborough. Larouche said the school is on the verge of signing a lease for the new location in an office park adjacent to the Maine Mall.
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.
Charter schools, established by the Legislature in 2011, are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Maine law allows as many as 10 charter schools to operate in the state.
The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, Portland’s only charter school, was Maine’s fifth, opening last year after a period of turmoil in leadership.
Before receiving its charter, Baxter Academy scaled back anticipated enrollment from 160 students to 130 in its final plan. Baxter had a minimum required enrollment of 117.
Charter schools, and virtual charter schools in particular, have become a flash point in partisan fights in the Legislature.
Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, have billed virtual charter schools as essential educational reform to give students and their families more choice. Democrats have opposed the schools, saying they offer impersonal, inferior education while bleeding school districts of students and revenue and directing the money to for-profit operators.
Opponents also say that local school boards of virtual charter schools often outsource their management to the for-profit companies.
Maine Connections Academy will operate under Connections Academy, a for-profit company that now operates 25 virtual charter schools in more than 20 states.
The company is owned by Pearson PLC in London, a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and textbooks for many schools in the United States.
The charter school commission approved Maine Connections Academy in May, allowing it to enroll a maximum of 297 students by September. Enrollment cannot fall below 243. If it does, the school will have to apply for a waiver from the commission.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: