January 12, 2013

Backer of virtual charter schools defends independence

But the leader of the Charter School Commission says doubts about oversight led to rejections of two applications this week.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A state panel’s decision to turn down two full-time virtual charter school applications earlier this week has continued to draw fire from the schools’ supporters.

Amy Carlisle (file photo)

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer

Amy Carlisle, president of the local board for the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, wrote the charter school commissioners to say she “was disappointed and blindsided” by their decision. She also vigorously denied that her board lacked independence from K12 Inc., the Herndon, Va., based online education company that would manage the school, hire and fire its staff and headmaster, and provide curricular materials and assessment data.

“I am at a loss for understanding how as a non-profit governing board, we are being publicly labeled as overtly dependent on an education service provider that we would have ultimate authority over,” Carlisle wrote. “Not a single one of our board members is beholden to K12 Inc., but all to the ideology behind school choice.”

The charter commission denied the school’s application in a unanimous vote Tuesday, saying that its review team “has no confidence that the governing board of the Maine Virtual Academy can functionally manage the daily education and fiscal responsibilities without staff.”

The commission also rejected an application for another virtual charter school that would have been operated by Baltimore-based Connections Learning, a subsidiary of publishing giant Pearson.

At digital charter schools – which exist in 27 other states – students get the vast majority of their education online at home, with taxpayers in their school districts paying the tuition.

Reached by telephone, Carlisle defended her board’s independence and expressed confidence in members’ ability to manage their proposed contractor, K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company.

“There are no facts that support the idea that our board is not independent from K12,” she said of the volunteer body. “We all feel we bring something to the table and that we have an arm’s length relationship with K12.” She said any notion of a lack of independence was “a perception, not a reality.”

As previously reported, after the Maine Legislature passed a 2011 law allowing creation of charter schools, K12 Inc. approached former state Sen. Peter Mills and others, encouraging them to form a board. Mills has said the board looked at other potential partners before choosing the Virginia company, which he said had unparalleled resources.

Carlisle said she became involved after approaching K12 Inc. and asking how she might become involved in a charter school effort. She was put in touch with the nascent board members. “They didn’t reach out to me, I reached out to them,” she said.

“Those of us who sit on the board, we come at this as concerned parents and citizens, not by being recruited by K12,” she said. “The parties have a mutual understanding of being in this together.”

This is the school’s second application. Last year, its bid was not approved because of similar concerns about the degree to which the board could exercise oversight of K12. The latest application had few changes in regard to the school’s governance.

For this reason, the chair of the Charter School Commission says the rejection should not have come as a surprise.

“When you’re working on it for the second time, you’d better shape up,” Jana LaPoint said. “It is very, very obvious to us that (the two proposed virtual schools) are not clear of the organizations they are hiring, because they don’t have day-to-day control of those organizations.”

“These are not small things to tweak,” she said. “They are major, major substantive changes that effect the whole operation.”

K12 Inc. and Connections Learning 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 student achievement.

(Continued on page 2)

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