January 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: LePage's charges on charters off the charts

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

He loves to rant and rant and rant about what's wrong with Maine schools.

AIRING IT OUT

Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. Friday to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

Related story

LePage blasts charter school commission, teachers union

If only Gov. Paul LePage would put the same energy into doing his homework.

"Unfortunately, the governor seems to be more interested in bullying people than really understanding what people are doing," observed Jana LaPoint, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, in an interview Thursday.

LePage caught many in the State House off guard Wednesday when he called a rare news conference to complain that Maine schools are "failing" and that our educators "abuse our children in the classroom by lying to them."

His primary target: the all-volunteer Charter School Commission, which earlier this week denied four of five pending applications for new charter schools -- including two "virtual" online schools pitched by out-of-state, for-profit companies that have spent much of the past year or two cozying up to the LePage administration.

"I'm asking (members of the commission) for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away," snarled LePage. "We don't need you. We need some people with backbones."

Two things worth noting here:

First, as he hits the halfway point of his seemingly endless four-year term, Maine's chief executive has been reduced to telling those who tick him off (an ever-growing segment of Maine's population, mind you) to simply "go away."

Second, if their actions this week are any indication, the seven members of the Charter School Commission have backbones of pure titanium.

LePage's take on this week's denials has about as much substance as the steam coming out of his ears: The Charter School Commission, he claims, caved to lawyers hired by the Maine School Superintendents Association to "intimidate" the commission into putting the brakes on Maine's burgeoning charter school movement.

Now for what really happened.

Each of the five applications, like those for the two charter schools that are up and running and two more that are expected to open in the fall, got an in-depth review from a three-member subcommittee of the commission.

One, the Harpswell Coastal Academy, received initial approval from the review team and the full commission.

Of the four that were denied, three fell short because their proposed governing boards lacked the independence required under state law.

Take the Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, for example.

"In Heartwood's case, the leader of the school is also the leader of the board," noted the subcommittee's report. "In addition, several of the board's staff members are also named as board members."

Talk about built-in job security!

Then there were the two online schools -- the Maine Virtual Academy, proposed by K-12 Inc. of Herndon, Va.; and Maine Connections Academy, proposed by Connections Learning of Baltimore.

In each case, the review committee found that the local board would have little if any control over the school's day-to-day operation. Rather, as Maine Virtual Academy's reviewers found, the board "has delegated all responsibility for daily operations" to the out-of-state corporation.

Goodbye, home rule. Hello, digital education via remote control.

(To appreciate why that's all such a big deal, revisit the Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K-12 and Connections Learning, published Sept. 2. Staff Writer Colin Woodard found that both companies, in addition to shaping much of Maine's fledgling policy on digital education, have fared poorly in studies of how their students in other states perform.)

Finally, we have the Queen City Charter School in Bangor. The Charter School Commission turned thumbs down on its application because, for starters, the proposed operating budget included a three-year, $150,000-per-year federal grant for which the school has yet to even apply.

(Continued on page 2)

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