May 16, 2013

In Maine, push for virtual schools fades

After negative publicity, a task force's preliminary report omits key digital learning reforms championed by Gov. LePage and Jeb Bush.

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

A group of digital-education experts is recommending that Maine create an online directory to help school districts and teachers find, choose and write reviews of digital learning resources.

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In this May 1, 2013 file photo, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveils the state's new A-F grading system surrounded by students at the Maine State Library. A push for virtual schools championed by Gov. Paul LePage and Jeb Bush appears to be fading.

Staff Photo by Joe Phelan

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PDF: Working group's digital-learning report

But the 17-member group's report and "digital learning strategy" is most notable for what it doesn't recommend: the sweeping policy changes advocated by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which seek to remove a range of state restrictions and limitations on how digital learning products are accessed, supervised and funded.

The six-page report, overseen and composed by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, suggests that Gov. Paul LePage's administration has slowed its effort to implement the controversial provisions of the Bush foundation's Digital Learning Now! initiative.

The report, including a detailed strategy for digital education, was supposed to have been turned in to LePage and the Legislature by Jan. 4, but wasn't filed until Feb. 22. It remained under wraps until the Portland Press Herald obtained it through a public records request.

The administration originally intended to introduce the strategy with a bang, at a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Bush in November. Instead, an unfinished plan was quietly submitted in Augusta, where key legislators aren't even aware of its existence.

Bowen said Wednesday that the report is "a work in progress" and he intends to reconvene the study group after the legislative session ends this summer.

"Plans change. That is the nature of this work," he said. "We're taking our time and continuing to work on a number of fronts."

The report makes no explicit reference to the Digital Learning Now! standards, and instead calls for "a curated digital learning directory" to help educators find, review and compare courses, professional development opportunities and other digital learning resources.

One virtue of that approach is its low cost; the report notes that expanding access to digital learning resources "will almost certainly have to be done within existing resources."

"We were very careful not to rubber-stamp any kind of program or specific approach," said Chris Toy, an education consultant in Bath who served on the group. "Looking at the individuals involved, that would not have been possible. Nobody is a wallflower."

The report contains no references to full-time virtual schools -- which LePage has championed -- and the proposed online directory would not handle them.

"My vision was looking at how we educators in Maine can be out there to lead, direct and improve on digital learning opportunities," said Michael Richards, president of the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine, "and not focus on virtual schools where accountability, content and instruction may suffer."

The focus on digital learning has increased since 2011, when the Legislature approved the creation of public charter schools, including full-time virtual schools, whose students get most or all of their education at home, via computer.

The nation's two largest online-education companies -- K12 Inc. and Connections Learning -- have been seeking to manage virtual charter schools in Maine, but have been rebuffed by the Maine Charter School Commission.

Virtual charter schools -- which are funded by taxpayers -- have a poor record nationally. In other states, K12 Inc. has faced investigations and the revocation of charters for some of its schools.

In party-line votes Monday, the Legislature's Education Committee recommended passage of bills that would impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools and effectively ban for-profit charter schools.

If passed by the Legislature, both bills are expected to face the governor's vetoes, which they would have difficulty overcoming.

Maine's Digital Learning Advisory Group was formed in February 2012 by separate acts of the governor and the Legislature, which at the time was controlled by Republicans.

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