AUBURN — Officials trying to open a virtual charter school in Maine have significantly changed their business model, agreeing to staff the school with Mainers after critics and state officials said their original plan left too much power in the hands of a national for-profit company.

The Maine Virtual Academy school board originally planned to have the vendor, K12 Inc., hire all teachers, provide back-office support and essentially run the school as a turnkey operation, school board Chairwoman Amy Carlisle acknowledged Monday. That’s the standard model for Virginia-based K12, the nation’s largest online education company with schools in 30-plus states.

But after the Maine Charter School Commission rejected the school’s application last spring, in part because of concerns over the poor performance of K12 schools in other states, the board made “substantial changes,” she said.

“We have heard you loud and clear,” Carlisle told the commission Monday. “This is a Maine school.”

K12 will provide the school’s curriculum and technology, but the school board will hire all the teachers and the head of school. Maine Virtual Academy also will have all teachers work at one building instead of from their homes, and will increase the pay scale for teachers.

“This is going to be Maine leadership and Maine management from the top down,” Carlisle told the commission during an interview and public hearing on the application, held at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

Only four people spoke during the public hearing, with three opposed and one parent in support.

The commission will vote Nov. 13 on whether to go into contract talks with Maine Virtual Academy. Those talks could last up to 60 days, after which the commission would take a final vote on whether to allow the school to open in fall 2015.

There are currently four spots available for new charter schools in Maine under the state’s 10-school cap through 2021. If approved, Maine Virtual Academy would be the second virtual charter school in Maine. Maine Connections Academy opened this fall.

On Monday, most of the questions from commission members related to the school’s relationship with K12, ranging from maintaining independence to how school officials would assess the quality of the curriculum, since virtual schools using K12 in other states have faced problems.

Bob Kautz, executive director of the commission, noted that last week the Massachusetts Board of Education placed Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School, which uses K12, on probation for a year because students showed low academic achievement.

“The issues you are seeing in different states show we need to be a strong manager of our (education service provider K12), and between our board and our contract we have a great deal of flexibility to handle them,” Carlisle said.

A revised contract between the school and K12 includes language allowing the school to work with other vendors if K12 can’t meet specific education needs, as opposed to an exclusive arrangement, along with easier terms to break the contract with K12 if necessary, school officials say.

As for assessing academic rigor, Carlisle noted that the Maine Department of Education has reviewed K12 and placed it on a list of approved vendors for online education, ensuring its curriculum meets Maine’s learning standards.

The public hearing only drew a handful of speakers. Three people opposed to the school all questioned the need for a second charter school, and noted that charter schools drain state funding from traditional public schools.

“Why, at a time when the needs of already existing schools are growing, would you approve a second charter school that essentially is redundant with the one that already exists?” asked Becky Fles, president-elect of the Maine School Boards Association.

Virtual charter school students learn largely from home and get lessons online, with limited face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators.

Supporters say the schools are good for students who don’t “fit” at traditional schools, from athletes doing intense training to students who have been bullied. Virtual charter schools also have drawn criticism, in part because local school boards outsource their management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.

Maine charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts.

“Given that we already have a virtual charter school, Connections Academy, in this state targeting the very same population – grades 7 through 12 – as would be targeted by Maine Virtual Academy, it is very difficult to see why we need another one,” said Suzanne Godin, the South Portland superintendent and president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, which also opposes the school.

Carlisle said she is continuing to hear from interested students and parents even though Maine Connections opened this fall.

A Lewiston parent, Stavros Medros, said during the hearing that he supported the school, noting that Lewiston schools are overcrowded and a virtual school might ease enrollment pressure there.

Maine Connections Academy contracts its services from Connections Academy, a division of Maryland-based Connections Education, a for-profit company that manages virtual charter schools in more than 20 states. The company is owned by Pearson PLC in London, a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and publishes textbooks for many schools in the United States.

A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections Education showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies and that the companies recruited board members in the state.

Nationwide, there were 2.1 million students enrolled in charter schools in 2011-12, and 5.6 percent of all public schools were charters, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

 


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