The state’s largest school district hopes to lure homeschoolers back to the fold – and compete with a new statewide virtual charter school – by offering a virtual academic program starting this fall.

Homeschool students living in the Portland Public School District could take all their classes online through Pearson, the same vendor working with the state virtual charter school, but be registered as district students, Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said. It is unclear whether the virtual classes would be available to all grades.

“We recognize the educational landscape is changing. It is incumbent upon us to compete,” Caulk said. “We want to target homeschooled students and parents who, for whatever reason, are choosing online learning. We want to provide an in-district option for students considering a free statewide (virtual) charter school.”

Caulk said there are “major similarities” between the Portland program and Maine Connections Academy, the state virtual charter school that will open in the fall.

“I think we can do it better,” he said, citing the other resources in the district, which has about 7,000 students and 16 schools.

Last year, nine students from the Portland Public School District went to charter schools, and this year the number increased to 31, Caulk said.

Belinda Ray, a former public school teacher who homeschools her children, said she thought a virtual program through the Portland schools would interest some homeschool families.

“Absolutely, but not necessarily every homeschooler (would be interested) because homeschoolers do run the gamut from people who replicate the school experience at home to people who are doing something totally different,” Ray said. Her own 17-year old sons, for example, take some classes at Southern Maine Community College as part of their homeschooling plan.

Details of the program were not immediately available, including whether the program would be available to students already attending classes in the district or whether students could take some classes online and some in the classroom.

Caulk said the program, which he first announced in a monthly newsletter issued last week, is in an early stage. He said the school board has not yet been briefed on details, and the district has not reached out to the homeschool community. He said the district intends to administer the new program with existing staff and provide students with computers and hardware as needed. It is also unclear whether the program would require school board approval.

Caulk said it was too early to tell how many students might enroll. When asked why the district didn’t just create its own virtual charter school, he said the program might “grow into that.”

“This is a short-term turnkey solution,” said Caulk, who has been sharply critical of charter schools in the past. “As we built it out, if we get students and the program begins to grow, we could look at a longer, more sustainable plan. I don’t want to imply that a charter school would be the direction we would go in, but we would look at the various options out there.”

Under state law, any district can create its own charter school. Earlier this month, the Biddeford School Committee voted to form an advisory committee to explore the feasibility of a district-sponsored charter school. If approved, it would be the first in-district charter school in the state.

Because virtual schools operate under state and local requirements that differ from state to state, it’s not clear whether public schools in other states have programs similar to the one proposed by Portland. The National Education Association could not immediately say how many public school districts operate virtual schools.

Maine now has six charter schools – which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts – that were approved by the Maine Charter School Commission. The state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021. Charter schools set up through a local school district do not need commission approval and do not fall under the 10-school cap.

The district reaps a financial advantage if homeschool students enroll in the program. Homeschooled children are not enrolled in a school district, and the district doesn’t get state funding for those students. But once a homeschooled child enrolls in a charter school of any kind, the district where they live must pay the charter school per-student funding for that child.

If the homeschool student enrolls in Portland’s virtual program, the district will get funding for that student. Some of that funding would go to Pearson, which provides the instruction, but Caulk would not disclose the district’s financial arrangement with Pearson, referring those questions to Sharon Pray, the district’s director of student support services. Pray declined to comment, saying officials want to brief the school board first. The Portland Press Herald has filed a Freedom of Information request for documents regarding the arrangement with Pearson.

The state funding impact can be significant in some districts: Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, which is located between two charter schools, lost more than $1 million in state funding over a two-year period from students who left the district for the charter schools.

State officials have discussed ways to change the funding formula so school districts would not have to pay the charter schools directly out of pocket. Among the proposals is having the cost of all charter students distributed evenly among the state’s school districts.

Statewide, the average cost to educate a student is about $10,000, depending on an individual child’s needs. A child with special needs, for example, may need additional services, and the district pays the charter school a higher per-pupil cost for that child.

The president of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union, said a virtual charter school operated by a school district might appeal to some students.

“Virtual schools may work for a very small proportion of students who have difficulty in a traditional classroom but the requirements to work independently mean that the children who are involved in virtual schools must be highly motivated and highly independent, and that is a very small proportion of students,” Lois Kilby-Chesley said. “Most students are going to benefit from having adult interaction and peer interaction in a classroom and having social opportunities that public schools provide.”

Maine Connections Academy will open this fall with about 280 students in grades 7-9, and plans to expand in future years. Portland is also home to a brick-and-mortar charter school, Baxter Academy, which will enroll 230 students in grades 9-11 this fall, and plans to become a four-year high school with 315 students next year.

Maine Connections operates under Connections Academy, a for-profit company that runs 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 publishes textbooks for many schools in the United States.

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 21 to clarify that district-sponsored schools do not fall under the state cap.

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com