Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk tried to introduce a little innovation to his district this fall. He probably won’t be trying that again anytime soon.

Caulk told the city School Board that he planned to compete with a new, online-only charter school by creating an online program for Portland. Instead of losing about $7,000 for every student who signs up for the Maine Connections Academy, Portland would pay $4,250 to the same curriculum vendor that the new charter school uses and make money instead of lose it.

Caulk withdrew his plan after he couldn’t answer some very basic questions about how it would work. Although the superintendent should have done his homework, this idea did not deserve the harsh response it got.

Online learning is not for everyone, but what is? We all know that traditional schools leave some students behind, because they can’t keep up with the pace, or the pace is too slow, or the classes they are most interested in are not available.

No one is surprised to hear that one type of student can thrive in the same class that another student hates. Why should we say that online education won’t work because it’s not right for most students?

The answer is politics. Online education has become a tool used by anti-government politicians like Gov. LePage, who want to turn public money over to for-profit corporations that would educate students for a fee without significant public oversight. This is the model used by the Maine Connections Academy, which has an exclusive contract with a company that not only provides instruction materials but also trains and supervises teachers.

These kinds of schools suck money out of public school budgets (which was the problem that Caulk was trying to address) and ship it out of state.

So it’s understandable that people like Portland Mayor Michael Brennan objected to an idea that appears to validate and strengthen a flawed funding model.

People who are dedicated to preserving and improving the public school system, keeping funds within school district budgets and employing teachers and other educators who are protected by collective-bargaining contracts don’t want to join forces with the people who want to privatize education and crush unions.

It would have been interesting, though, to see how things would have been different in a less politicized environment.

Would Caulk’s idea have been seen as innovative instead of destructive? Would it have hit so much opposition so quickly?

This outcome is unfortunate because superintendents should be floating ideas for different teaching models instead of fighting to protect what they have. And the state should be supporting that kind of effort instead of coming up with new ways to rob public schools of public money.

There were two opportunities to do just that during the last legislative session.

One bill would have funded charter schools directly by the state, instead of making individual school districts pay tuition from their school budgets. The other would have created a state-run virtual school that would serve students in every district and would have been able to provide guidance and support to superintendents like Caulk who want to try something different.

And that’s really what’s called for. Maine’s public schools are not the failure that Gov. LePage claims, but they are not reaching every student, and they should be looking for ways to try.

A completely online school would be inappropriate for most students, but there are some who would thrive. For others who are homebound, it would be better than nothing.

Virtual schools would enable rural districts to offer courses that would not be otherwise available, either remedial or advanced. Online lectures could be part of a real bricks-and-mortar school, the way that a class might read a book and discuss it.

We support investing more in education, but we recognize that there are limits in Maine – not only fiscal limits, but also geographic limits and a shrinking population of students. The challenge for our state is how to work best within those limits.

Public schools should be at the center of the conversation about how to better use technology. Experienced public school teachers should be designing and supervising the programs. And superintendents should be advocating for change.

The events in Portland last week show that we are not there yet, and politics is getting in the way.

 

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CORRECTION: This editorial was updated at 12:33 p.m. on Sept. 8 to correct the name of the virtual academy.


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