November 1, 2012

Two virtual schools reapply to Maine commission

The panel that will review their controversial bids to open in September wants to be sure it can assess what students are learning.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Two organizations that want to establish full-time, taxpayer-financed virtual schools in Maine resubmitted their applications for state charters Wednesday.

The proposed Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy each seek to begin operating next September. The schools' students would get the vast majority of their education online, at home, with taxpayers in their school districts paying the cost.

While the schools would be governed by local boards, each would be managed by an out-of-state digital education company that would hire and fire administrators and teachers and provide content and assessment data.

The companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and how their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of students' achievement.

K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., would manage the Maine Virtual Academy, which seeks to enroll 200 students in 2012, later expanding to 1,000.

The company, co-founded by the convicted junk bond trader Michael Milken and former federal education secretary William J. Bennett, is under investigation in Florida over allegations that it used uncertified teachers and pressured employees to help in concealing it.

Maine Connections Academy would be managed by Connections Learning, a Baltimore-based subsidiary of Pearson and the second-largest digital education provider in the country, after K12.

It seeks to open with 300 students and grow to 1,000 in its fifth year, down from a previously proposed target of 3,000.

Both of the proposed schools filed applications with the Maine Charter School Commission earlier this year in hopes of opening this fall. Commissioners set the applications aside, expressing concerns about their own competence to judge the complex proposals in short order and the possible lack of independence of the local boards.

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the volunteer commission has since had a chance to educate itself in evaluating online schools, but remains concerned about the boards maintaining an arm's-length relationship with the management companies.

She said commissioners also are focused on how best to assess the schools once they start operating. The management companies can provide detailed data on how each student is progressing, she said, but the commission must be sure the data can be relied on to give accurate, unbiased evaluations.

"That's the single biggest piece we will have to look at, because those are the safeguards for the students," Lapoint said. "We need to be sure the students are learning what they should be learning."

She said the commission is also considering limiting initial enrollment, to be sure it could properly assess students' achievement.

In October, the state's largest teachers union, the Maine Education Association, released a report that was extremely critical of the proposed schools and their corporate managers.

The report urged the commission to "deny the applications of K12 Inc. and Connections Academy to operate virtual charter schools" or, if it approves them, "create safeguards to prevent against the type of practices seen in other states."

"If you look at virtual schools, these two companies in particular stand out as takers and not givers to a community," said MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley. "They are really two corporations that are set up for the purpose of taking the students out of the community and community schools and have them work online. ... I think it would be detrimental to the students, to the communities and to the public schools."

The National Education Association has taken up the issue in Maine as well, funding a political action committee that has bought $14,594 worth of ads opposing state Senate candidate Ruth Summers of Scarborough, a Republican who is the board chair of Maine Connections Academy.

One flyer from the PAC, Citizens Who Support Maine's Public Schools PAC, criticized her involvement with the virtual school.

Summers, who is married to Republican U.S. Senate nominee Charlie Summers, did not respond to interview requests.

Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority and secretary of the board of the Maine Virtual Academy, defended the board's decision to stick with K12 Inc. as the operator of its proposed school.

"I don't think anyone can question the richness of their curriculum and their ability to deliver -- their capacity is extraordinary," Mills said. "They're in 32 states and they're surely large, but they're large for a good reason: They've been successful.

"The responsibility of the board is to make sure we take responsibility for making sure the contractor performs," he said.

K12 Inc. is under investigation by the Florida Department of Education's inspector general over allegations that it used uncertified teachers in one of its virtual schools in Seminole County, in violation of state law. Emails submitted to investigators by the school district appear to show K12 officials attempting to get certified teachers to claim they had taught students with whom they had never had contact.

A spokesperson for Florida's Department of Education said there is no firm time line for the completion of the investigation.

K12 Inc. has denied any wrongdoing and has said it is cooperating with investigators.

Ned Julian, the attorney for Seminole County Public Schools, said investigators visited the company's facilities last week to "interview individuals who have firsthand knowledge of the alleged misconduct."

In the past month, two Florida school boards rejected applications to open K12-managed virtual charter schools. Officials in Marion County and Pasco County expressed concerns about the allegations in Seminole County in announcing their decisions.

The Maine Charter School Commission also expected applications from five brick-and-mortar charter schools Wednesday: Harpswell Coastal Academy, Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, Inspire Me Academy in Springvale, Queen City Academy in Bangor and Monson Academy in Monson.

Lapoint, the commission's chair, said one school that previously expressed an intent to file by the Oct. 31 deadline, the Penobscot Bay Community School in Stockton Springs, had withdrawn.

Lapoint said she is certain of one thing: "Charter schools are being held much more accountable than any of our public schools are.

"In a charter school," she said, "if the students don't perform or make the grades, they can be closed, so they have the most difficult row to hoe of anybody."

 

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

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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