January 29, 2013

Maine Democrats take aim at virtual charter schools

The push represents a significant challenge to the taxpayer-financed institutions, which Gov. LePage has championed vehemently.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Five Democratic legislators – including the top-ranking lawmaker and the House co-chair of the education committee – propose either imposing a moratorium on approval of full-time virtual charter schools or banning them altogether.

The push represents a significant challenge to proponents of virtual charter schools, taxpayer-financed institutions through which students receive most or all of their education online, logging on from home computers.

Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature, and several influential legislators are behind the measures.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted a measure that would forbid creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the state charter school commission can study and report out "best practices" for the schools.

"By creating a moratorium, we could give the charter commission some time and allow them to take a long look at how the state of Maine wants to implement full-time virtual schools," said Alfond, who has previously sponsored bills to promote digital education. "I believe technology belongs in the classroom, but it needs to enhance the classroom, not replace the classroom."

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, has gone further, requesting bills that would prohibit operating virtual schools for profit and require they be run by the state or by existing school districts. "I don't like the idea that they will be run by out-of-state, for-profit corporations," MacDonald said.

"I believe that all of these efforts are an attempt to pull apart the enterprise of public education, which I see as building on community and citizenship as well as on knowledge and personal development," MacDonald added. "It intends to deconstruct all that and send everybody off into their private corner where the only virtue is testable knowledge and all the other learning is let go."

The state charter school commission this month rejected two virtual charter schools that were to be operated by out-of-state companies K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore. The online education companies – the nation's largest -– were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

Gov. Paul LePage responded to the commission's rejection of the schools angrily, holding two news conferences in which he called for its members to resign. Both virtual schools are expected to resubmit applications.

The head of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, which would be operated by K12 Inc., said there will be opposition to the new bills.

"We as a board, and the families who support this option, will oppose such legislation and hope to further educate the Legislature on the benefits a virtual charter school model, and in particular the Maine Virtual Academy, would bring to Maine families and students," said Amy Carlisle, the school's board president.

Maine Virtual Academy board secretary Peter Mills said he was surprised to learn of the proposed bills, given that the charter commission already has the authority to scrutinize the virtual schools.

"To have these statutes seems to be overkill and unnecessary because there's no evidence that the charter commission isn't doing its work properly or being thoughtful about it," Mills said.

Maine Republican Party vice chairwoman Ruth Summers, who is president of the rival Maine Connections Academy board, did not respond to an interview request.

In the past two weeks, schools operated by K12 Inc. have been the subject of renewed scrutiny in several states.

Its 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy may lose its charter after authorities there expressed concern about the school's poor academic performance and the local governing board's lack of control over the company.

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