By Colin Woodard
Five Democratic legislators – including the top-ranking lawmaker and the House co-chair of the education committee – propose either imposing a moratorium on approval of full-time virtual charter schools or banning them altogether.
The push represents a significant challenge to proponents of virtual charter schools, taxpayer-financed institutions through which students receive most or all of their education online, logging on from home computers.
Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature, and several influential legislators are behind the measures.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted a measure that would forbid creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the state charter school commission can study and report out "best practices" for the schools.
"By creating a moratorium, we could give the charter commission some time and allow them to take a long look at how the state of Maine wants to implement full-time virtual schools," said Alfond, who has previously sponsored bills to promote digital education. "I believe technology belongs in the classroom, but it needs to enhance the classroom, not replace the classroom."
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, has gone further, requesting bills that would prohibit operating virtual schools for profit and require they be run by the state or by existing school districts. "I don't like the idea that they will be run by out-of-state, for-profit corporations," MacDonald said.
"I believe that all of these efforts are an attempt to pull apart the enterprise of public education, which I see as building on community and citizenship as well as on knowledge and personal development," MacDonald added. "It intends to deconstruct all that and send everybody off into their private corner where the only virtue is testable knowledge and all the other learning is let go."
The state charter school commission this month rejected two virtual charter schools that were to be operated by out-of-state companies K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore. The online education companies – the nation's largest -– were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.
Gov. Paul LePage responded to the commission's rejection of the schools angrily, holding two news conferences in which he called for its members to resign. Both virtual schools are expected to resubmit applications.
The head of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, which would be operated by K12 Inc., said there will be opposition to the new bills.
"We as a board, and the families who support this option, will oppose such legislation and hope to further educate the Legislature on the benefits a virtual charter school model, and in particular the Maine Virtual Academy, would bring to Maine families and students," said Amy Carlisle, the school's board president.
Maine Virtual Academy board secretary Peter Mills said he was surprised to learn of the proposed bills, given that the charter commission already has the authority to scrutinize the virtual schools.
"To have these statutes seems to be overkill and unnecessary because there's no evidence that the charter commission isn't doing its work properly or being thoughtful about it," Mills said.
Maine Republican Party vice chairwoman Ruth Summers, who is president of the rival Maine Connections Academy board, did not respond to an interview request.
In the past two weeks, schools operated by K12 Inc. have been the subject of renewed scrutiny in several states.
• Its 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy may lose its charter after authorities there expressed concern about the school's poor academic performance and the local governing board's lack of control over the company.
• In Tennessee last week, lawmakers grilled the head of the K12-operated Tennessee Virtual Academy after the school posted substandard test scores.
• The company is also under investigation in Florida over allegations that it covered up the use of uncertified teachers at a school it operates, Florida Virtual Academy.
• Investor lawsuits were filed at a federal court in Virginia last year alleging deceptive enrollment, attendance and recruitment bookkeeping to increase its taxpayer-supported revenues, which are based on the number of students enrolled.
"Virtual schools and their efficacy are in dispute now, so why are we diving into this?" said the sponsor of another moratorium on the schools, Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle. "We don't have enough money in our education system in Maine to fund what we'd like to do, so why are we going to funnel all this money out of state?"
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, has requested a bill that would ban virtual charters, while Rep. Victoria Kornfeld, D-Bangor, has requested one that, like Alfond's and Devin's, would impose a moratorium.
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the former House Democratic leader, has submitted a bill request that would direct the state to study the possibility of running its own virtual school, much as New Hampshire does.
"We have the networks, we have the connections with teachers and school leaders, why wouldn't it make sense?" Cain said. "Rather than farm out the responsibility for virtual education to a private company, I think it makes sense for the state of Maine to look into whether this really is the best way."
A spokesperson for Education Commissioner Steve Bowen, who strongly supports virtual charters, did not respond to a request for comment.
All of the requested bills are being drawn up by the Legislature's revisers, who may recommend some be folded together. Full texts of the bills are expected next week.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: