February 3

Public hearings to spotlight proposed charter schools

Each of three charter schools hoping to open in Maine will be the focus of its own hearing this week.

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

Education officials and members of the public will get opportunities this week to learn more about three proposed charter schools – two virtual schools and one STEM-focused high school affiliated with a Turkish imam – that are hoping to open in Maine this fall.

Officials from Maine Connections Academy, a virtual school, will meet from noon to 3 p.m. Monday with the Maine Charter School Commission at the University of Maine at Augusta, followed by a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m.

A similar pair of events with the same meeting times will be held at UMaine Augusta on Tuesday for the other virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy. And on Friday, the meeting and public hearing for Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School will be held at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

The commission voted last week to continue discussions with the three schools, and it will take a final vote in March to decide which may open.

Under a 2012 Maine law, up to 10 charter schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years, and five have already opened. The schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts and their elected boards.

Charters have proven controversial in Maine. They strongly backed by Gov. Paul LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by some legislators, unions and local officials who want to protect funding for traditional public schools.

Virtual charter schools have drawn particular scrutiny in Maine and nationwide.

In Maine, the commission turned down proposals from the two virtual schools in recent years, largely out of concern that the local boards did not have enough independence from “education services providers” – or ESPs – that provide curriculum, and in some cases, the staff.

This year, commission members said they are satisfied that the local boards have sufficient independence, based on their vote last week to continue negotiations. It’s the farthest in the approval process that virtual charter schools have ever progressed in Maine.

The two proposed Maine virtual schools have different models, although both rely on large national companies to provide the curriculum.

Maine Virtual Academy has contracted the services of 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 Telegram investigation 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.

Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.

MAINE CONNECTIONS ACADEMY

Although it is a virtual school largely conducted online, Maine Connections Academy plans to have two teaching centers where staff and students can meet; one will be in Scarborough and one will be in the Bangor area.

The school plans to open with an initial enrollment of 300 students in grades 7-12 and grow to a maximum enrollment of 750 students.

A key concern for Maine Charter School Commission member Ande Smith, who led the subcommittee reviewing Maine Connections, was that the school would need a very strong day-to-day leader in the chief executive officer position in order to be successful. He also noted that the board intended to monitor the school’s progress based on metrics, but the metrics would be provided by Connections Learning, weakening the group’s ability to objectively oversee the results.

(Continued on page 2)

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