By Colin Woodard
AUGUSTA — Maine’s Charter School Commission has rejected four of the five charter school applications under consideration for 2013, including both proposals for virtual schools.
The seven-member panel gave initial approval Tuesday to the Harpswell Coastal Academy, which would serve grades 6 to 12 in the Harpswell, Brunswick and Freeport area.
“We really do see ourselves as part of the set of public school opportunities in the area,” said John D’Anieri, Harpswell Coastal Academy’s school design consultant. “I’m a lifelong educator, and the folks I am working with in this want to create another great public school rather than bash existing ones.”
The Harpswell school says it intends to offer “personalized, project-based education” and would start with 40 to 80 students, half of them in the sixth grade and half in the ninth. Several steps remain before it can receive a charter, including public hearings.
The other four applications before the commission were denied, including three “brick-and-mortar” schools – the Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, Queen City Academy in Bangor and Monson Academy in Monson – and two virtual schools, Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy.
The rejected applications had one thing in common, said Roger W. Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools.
“Pretty much across the board, their boards didn’t show enough independence in their governance, and our law is very prescriptive about that,” he said. “We think it’s critical that we have Maine people running the schools that are close to the local situations and know what the communities need and have the capacity to support the school.”
Gov. Paul LePage plans to introduce legislation that would allow an unlimited number of charter schools in Maine. The state law passed in 2011 to authorize charter schools set a limit of 10 in the next 10 years.
Two charter schools – the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School – are open. Two more – the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland and the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray – have conditional approval.
Charter schools receive public funding but are run by parents, teachers and community leaders. The state’s largest teachers union opposes lifting the cap on charter schools, arguing that they could effectively drain resources from public school districts.
Tuesday’s vote was a setback for digital charter schools, in which students get the vast majority of their education online, at home, with taxpayers in their school districts paying the tuition.
The schools were proposed by rival national 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, that showed how they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and how their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.
While the virtual schools would have been governed by local boards, 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.
In the end, Charter School Commission members were troubled by the local governing boards’ perceived lack of independence and the ability of the companies to successfully oversee the schools remotely.
A subcommittee had recommended that the virtual schools be rejected, saying it had “no confidence” in K12 Inc.’s ability to manage Maine Virtual Academy without any in-state staff.
The company, co-founded by the convicted junk bond trader Michael Milken and former federal education secretary William J. Bennett, is the subject of an ongoing investigation in Florida over allegations that it used uncertified teachers and pressured employees to help in concealing it.
Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority and secretary of the Maine Virtual Academy, expressed frustration about the criticism of the school’s governance.
“My reason for being involved in all this was to make sure that Maine people would be in control and that it would be done in a proper way,” Mills said. “You needed a board that would be capable of exercising some control over the contractor and by the same token compelling the corporation to produce.”
“We think (K12 Inc.) is capable of producing because they have enormous resources,” said Mills.
He said it’s likely that the school will apply for a charter in future years. “I think our application was pretty good.”
Both of the proposed schools filed applications with the Charter School Commission last year in hopes of opening this fall.
Commissioners set the applications aside, expressing concerns about their own competence to judge the complex proposals in short order and the possible lack of independence of the local boards.
LePage criticized that decision in a letter dated June 11, in which he suggested that the commissioners reconsider the virtual schools or resign.
The head of the state’s largest teachers union expressed satisfaction with the commission’s decisions Tuesday.
“The MEA is very pleased to hear that particularly the two virtual schools are not still in the running,” said Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley. “We are very pleased that there seems to be a process of thoughtful consideration for the schools that are applying.”
On that point, Brainerd of the charter schools association agreed.
“Online education is coming, and we need to deal with it, and it’s better to take more time than to rush into something,” he said. “Much as we would like to see something going, it’s better to get it going right from the beginning.”
State House Bureau Writer Steve Mistler contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: