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

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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

LePage's executive order of Feb. 1, 2012, directed the Education Department to develop a strategic plan for digital learning "consistent with and organized around the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning" promoted nationwide by Bush's foundation.

An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, published Sept. 2, revealed that the executive order had been ghostwritten by staffers at Bush's foundation, which receives funding from online education companies.

The "10 elements" include dozens of specific policy directives calling for states to:

n Eliminate restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios, enrollments, class sizes, budgets, providers and the number of credits a student can earn.

n Avoid regulating "seat time" in classes, or requiring that online providers, their teachers or their governing board members be located in the state.

n Pay for the online classes of all students, including home-schoolers and those in private schools.

LePage chose to issue his order on Feb. 1 because the foundation had designated it the first "national digital learning day." Staff members at Bush's foundation were thrilled with the order.

In an email to Bowen, one said it made Maine "the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular."

While LePage's order directed the Education Department to create a stakeholder group and "develop a strategic plan" for digital learning, legislators passed a law three weeks later that further defined the group and its membership. Seven seats were reserved for specific organizations, including those representing principals, school boards, unionized teachers, superintendents and parent-teacher organizations. The other 10 experts were appointed by Bowen.

At the outset, in March 2012, Bowen expected that the foundation would play a major behind-the-scenes role. In a memo to foundation Deputy Director Deirdre Finn, Bowen wrote that the "next steps" would be for the foundation to write grants to pay for the study group's work and for a "contract with a company or individual to manage the project and write the plan."

He intended to release the plan at Bush's National Summit on Education Reform on Nov. 27-28 in Washington, D.C.

In an email response to Bowen, Finn expressed excitement at the prospect "for Maine to lead the nation on digital learning."

Emails acquired by the Press Herald reveal that, throughout the spring and summer of last year, Bowen remained optimistic that the study group would endorse the foundation's policy agenda. He conferred with the foundation regularly, asking it to survey how well Maine's policies "stacked up to the DLN essential elements" and to "get someone up here" to answer questions for the group.

As late as August, the foundation's personnel were offering to "map out an agenda for you."

Bowen was bullish. "We need to make some big moves here, or at least aim for the fences on digital learning," he wrote to staff regarding the digital study group.

The effort apparently stalled after the Telegram's report on Sept. 2 revealed the foundation's involvement in digital policymaking and its entanglements with online education companies.

The day the story was published, Bowen wrote to the study group members, denying that he was "part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to privatize Maine's schools" or that the "now notorious" 10 elements were "a huge conspiracy driven by profit motives."

Later that month, he exchanged emails with a consultant, Jay Collier, in which they narrowed the study group's focus to four issues: quality control, training teachers in digital learning skills, equity of access across the state, and funding.

Bowen identified quality control as "issue number one" because of "all the press recently" and suggested that paying for digital learning might require a "state-level approach" similar to Maine's laptop program for seventh- and eighth-graders.

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