June 17, 2012

Panel puts off OK of virtual charter schools

The commission says it needs more time to consider them, despite sharp prodding by Gov. LePage.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Despite fierce objections from Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Charter School Commission will not consider two applications to open virtual charter schools this fall.

On Friday, commissioners stood by their decision from the prior week to hold the applications for Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy for the 2013-14 cycle because of concerns about school governance and quality.

LePage wrote a letter to the commission Monday arguing that they have enough time to give the applications a thorough review for a September opening and need to act promptly to give students more educational choices.

"If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state's expectations, I urge their resignation," LePage wrote.

At a special meeting Friday to consider LePage's letter, commissioners reaffirmed their decision to spend more time evaluating the applications.

"We want to work with these charter schools and understand them better so that we can ensure they will be successful. They aren't, in many states," said Commissioner William Shuttleworth, Camden school superintendent. "In fact, they have had staggering failures in these states that we do not want to replicate."

The commission received a 476-page application for Maine Connections Academy on May 25 and a 1,114-page application for Maine Virtual Academy on May 29.

A charter must be in place 60 days before a charter school starts classes, so commissioners want to negotiate and approve charters by early July.

Commissioner Dick Barnes, who is on the subcommittee reviewing the virtual charter applications, said the commission needs more than five weeks to authorize a charter that must be five years long.

The virtual charter schools have been proposed by newly formed nonprofit organizations that would contract with for-profit education service providers -- Virginia-based K12 Inc. for Maine Virtual Academy and Maryland-based Connections Education for Maine Connections Academy -- to provide the curriculum and educational software, hire and train teachers and administer the schools.

Students enroll in the schools full time and learn through videos, computer exercises and online interaction with teachers, as well as some book-based and hands-on work. Most are open to all grades, and the younger a student is, the more supervision they require from a parent or other adult.

K12 and Connections are the two largest operators of full-time virtual schools. K12 ran at least 49 schools in 23 states in 2010-11, and Connections has 25 schools in 23 states.

Barnes, a retired education professor, said it's not clear the nonprofit governing boards will have the independence and resources to give them true authority over the schools.

LePage adviser Jonathan Nass told commissioners they should act now because Maine is suffering a "crisis" of failing schools.

"You have the responsibility and the legal authority to revoke charters of schools that are not progressing appropriately," Nass said. "One approach might be to get these schools running, then take over a strong oversight role as they go."

Bangor residents Celina and Dave Bernhardt asked the Charter School Commission to reconsider. They said their older daughter excelled in a virtual charter school in Florida and graduated high school at 16, while their younger daughter is struggling in a traditional public middle school and needs an alternative.

"These two companies that are offering to place virtual schools have a track record of success," Dave Bernhardt said. "They're not newbies in the market; they've created schools over and over. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt. They know what they're doing."

Some commissioners, however, noted that virtual charter schools have produced mixed academic results.

In a survey of education management organizations for the 2010-11 school year, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that three of 12 schools, 25 percent, managed by Connections met federal performance benchmarks. Thirteen of 41 K12 schools met those benchmarks, or 31.7 percent.

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