Friday, April 18, 2014
AUGUSTA — Two groups whose plans for virtual charter schools have been rejected twice are seeking state approval for the third time to open online schools in Maine.
Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy are again seeking approval from the state Charter School Commission.
Two other groups filed applications for brick-and-mortar charter schools by Monday’s deadline.
Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School is backed by a group – followers of a Turkish imam – that tried to open a charter school in Bangor last year. The other application is for the Many Hands Montessori School in Windham.
The Legislature passed legislation in 2011 that made Maine the 41st state to allow charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts, offering alternatives for students. As many as 10 schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years. Five have opened.
The two groups that are proposing virtual charter schools, both backed by national companies, gave presentations to the Charter School Commission on Tuesday, taking the commission members through a typical day at their schools.
Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online.
Maine Virtual Academy is backed by K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Maine Connections Academy is backed by Connections Learning of Baltimore. Those companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published last year, that showed that they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.
After rejecting the virtual charter school applications for a second year, the Charter School Commission created new requirements and a new application this summer just for virtual charter schools.
Among the specific requirements are weekly face-to-face time for students and instructors, and a school board that is clearly independent of the school’s education service provider, which usually is a national company.
Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the level of detail the applicants provided Tuesday indicates that they are thinking about issues the commission raised.
“There is a lot more accountability here, a lot more about (in-person contact with students),” Lapoint said after the presentations. “All of the things we had great concern about.”
The commission’s makeup has changed since the last time it rejected the virtual charter school applications. Two new members joined the commission recently, and a third joined the commission last spring, when the review process was underway.
The proposed charter school in Lewiston-Auburn would be part of a network of 800 schools operated internationally by followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen. The group’s application for a charter school in Bangor was denied in early 2013.
Followers of Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, “60 Minutes,” USA Today and other news organizations.
The schools are often top performers and have an entirely secular curriculum, but they have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, their hiring and financial practices and concerns about their motivation, which experts say has as much to do with shaping the evolution of Turkey as it does with educating young Americans.
Seven groups submitted letters of interest to the Charter School Commission in the fall. Three of them did not take the next step and file applications: Adventures in Learning Career Academies in Portland, Birches Montessori School for the deaf and hard of hearing in central Maine, and Inspire ME Academy in Sanford-Springvale.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: