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 cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

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

Study group members Richards and Toy said the group was presented with Digital Learning Now's "10 elements" in summary form but not with the foundation's more contentious policy recommendations.

"It was presented to us, but as information, not as a template," said Toy. He said Bowen and his staff never tried to pressure the group to adhere to the "elements," many of which focus on removing limits and regulations on online course offerings and how taxpayers pay for them.

Funding from Bush's foundation apparently never materialized, and the group met in person only twice. Bowen wrote the rough draft of the study group's report, but missed the statutory deadline of Jan. 4 to present it to lawmakers and the governor by nearly two months.

"It is the initial thinking of the group and it laid out a basic direction and some next steps," Bowen said in an email Tuesday night to the Press Herald.

He said the delays were due in part to a desire to see how things played out in the awarding of a new contract for the state's school laptop program. "We are currently in the process of developing a more detailed plan with timelines and deliverables," he said.

The preliminary report has languished. Neither LePage nor Bowen has publicized its completion, and lawmakers on the Education Committee learned of its existence from a reporter this week, even though they have copies in their files.

"I don't know the report or what it says, so I can't comment on it," said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee's House chair.

The governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, referred requests for comment to Bowen.

On Tuesday, Richards and Toy were unsure whether the group had been disbanded, and each said the work was unfinished.

Richards wasn't aware that a report had been submitted to the Legislature on the group's behalf and asked a reporter if he could get a copy.

"I don't consider this the final report," he said after reviewing it, because there is "more work to be done."

Bowen agreed and said the report is not the sort of "strategic plan" envisioned in LePage's executive order. He said that he plans to reconvene the working group to lay out such a plan, and that the Digital Learning Now! policies are still being considered.

"We still plan to look at the DLN pieces and see where we are relative to those," he said.

"So what you have is a work in progress," the commissioner said. "There is more work to come, and quite a bit (of) it."

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com 

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