September 6, 2013

Seven groups want to open Maine charter schools

They submit letters of intent – five for schools with a special focus, and two providing 'virtual' learning.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The letters of intent are online at http://www.maine.gov/csc/, the commission's website.

Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy would be virtual schools, offering instruction online. Both applied and were rejected in previous rounds of review because the commission determined that they did not demonstrate enough independence in their local governance.

The virtual schools are proposed by two rival companies, K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of the publishing giant Pearson.

The companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, 2012, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and how their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

Their virtual schools would have been governed by local boards, but the out-of-state companies would have had broad management powers, including hiring and firing of administrators and teachers, and the provision of academic content and the student assessment data on which the schools might be judged.

Charter school commission members said they were troubled by the local governing boards' perceived lack of independence.

The teachers union criticized the new proposals for virtual charter schools. Its statement said, "Connections Academy has failed students nationwide," as most of the company's schools didn't make adequate yearly progress, but did turn a hefty profit for the company.

Bob Kautz, the commission's executive director, said he will not be surprised if the groups' proposals address the commission's concerns about virtual schools.

Both participated in a workshop with the commission to discuss how the state's request for proposals could better inform applicants about what the commission wanted, he said.

Also, the commission now has separate application guidelines and requirements for virtual schools that seek to incorporate qualities that have helped programs succeed elsewhere in the country, such as more interaction between students and instructors and among students.

"We tried to have applications that reflect those things the charter commission has seen across the country that might assure a more quality product," he said.

As many as five of the groups could win approval for new charter schools, but the commission has discussed limiting the number in the coming year because of the work involved with overseeing new schools.

Kautz said the commission opted not to set a firm limit.

Lapoint, the commission's chairwoman, said a goal of the commission in the coming year will be to counter some of the myths about charter schools.

She said they don't skim the best students, but enroll them on a first-come, first-served basis. She also said the parents of those students pay property taxes, so schools aren't taking tax money from public schools, they're just shifting it to other public schools.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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