January 31

First two Maine virtual schools get initial approval

The schools, whose previous proposals were rejected, will take the next step forward, as will a school operated by followers of a Turkish imam. A Montessori school is rejected.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Proposals for two virtual charter schools, including one whose operator was investigated in Florida, were given initial approval Thursday by the Maine Charter School Commission.

click image to enlarge

Turkish Muslim spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen shakes hands with Pope John Paul II when they met at the Vatican in 1998. One of the proposed charter schools that moved ahead Thursday would be run by his followers, but is not intended to be a religious school.

1998 Associated Press File Photo

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In previous years, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy were rejected in the early round of votes by the commission, in part because of concerns that they would not be sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide the curriculum and largely manage the schools.

The commission will take a final vote in March on Maine’s newest charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.

Commission members said the virtual schools won approval this time because they assured commissioners that their local boards would be independent from their parent companies.

“We see they’re responding to our concerns and the boards have a more hands-on approach,” said Vice Chairwoman Shelley Reed, who in the past voted against the applications. “For me, that was a really big piece.”

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said, “Now we know we’ve got to dig deeper.”

Maine Virtual Academy would be operated by K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation’s largest online education company. The company was investigated by Florida’s education department, which found that K12 had employed teachers in Seminole County schools to teach subjects for which they lacked proper certification. The company also has come under scrutiny in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.

K12 Inc. and Connections Learning of Baltimore, which backs Maine Connections Academy, were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegraminvestigation in 2012 that showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.

Ande Smith, a Charter School Commission member who led a subcommittee looking at Maine Connections Academy, said commissioners still have significant concerns but are willing to continue negotiations.

“We are really excited to go forward,” said Amy Carlisle, board president for Maine Virtual Academy.

The commission also voted to continue negotiations with the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is affiliated with a network of 800 schools operated by followers of a Turkish imam.

Commissioners unanimously rejected the Many Hands Montessori School in Windham, saying the school’s backers were not prepared to expand a small private operation into a larger public school.

NEW VIRTUAL SCHOOL SCREENING

In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools. As many as 10 schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years, and five have already opened.

To address concerns about the virtual schools’ independence, the Charter School Commission created new requirements and a new application last year just for virtual charter schools. Those elements, and an additional meeting in which the commission met with applicants to discuss concerns, helped push the applications forward, said Lapoint.

In particular, previous applications called for the schools’ top officials to be employees of the national companies. The most recent applications call for the school boards to hire and employ the administrators.

The virtual charter schools still face one hurdle that’s beyond the commission’s control: proposed legislation asking state education officials to consider setting up a state-run virtual charter school. The bill would impose a moratorium on all virtual charter schools in Maine.

A public hearing on the bill, submitted by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, will be held Tuesday before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Gov. Paul LePage has been a strong supporter of charter schools. On Thursday, acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said he does not support a moratorium on virtual charter schools and is glad that the commission is moving forward on the charter school applications.

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