AUGUSTA — The Maine Charter School Commission voted 6-1 Thursday to authorize contract talks between the state and an organization seeking to open Maine’s second online charter school.

While voting in favor of the application by Maine Virtual Academy, the commissioners pledged to closely scrutinize the process.

Contract discussions about the school’s operation now will begin with the goal of opening in fall 2015. Maine Virtual Academy envisions a virtual school based in Bangor or Waterville for about 300 students from across the state.

This is the third application by Maine Virtual Academy in two years. The first was withdrawn and the second was rejected because of concerns about whether the school’s board would retain enough control over its educational services provider, K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual charter school firm.

The school’s board amended its application to ensure that teachers would be hired locally and also to ensure that K12 would not have exclusive rights to provide educational content.

“I think we’ve had a really good process. Obviously, we’ve been at it a long time,” said Amy Carlisle, board chairwoman for Maine Virtual Academy. “The (commission) still has concerns with our vendor, but they are confident in our board’s ability to manage our vendor.”

Maine charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Virtual charter school students learn largely at 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 in at traditional schools, from athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied.

Virtual charter schools also have drawn criticism, in part because local school boards outsource their curriculum and management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.

A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections Education, which runs the state’s other virtual school, Maine Connections Academy, showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies had recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.

Shelley Reed, the charter commission chairwoman, cast the lone opposing vote Thursday, saying she had concerns about whether K12 is a good fit for Maine.

She doesn’t have confidence in K12’s record of academic achievement, and noted that only about one-third of K12 schools nationally made adequate yearly progress in 2011-12 under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“There are troubles here. You don’t have to go very far to see it,” she said. “We’re responsible for the kids of Maine, the taxpayers of Maine, and I’m having a hard time believing that this organization is bringing something the state needs.”

Member Michael Wilhelm said he’s read all the stories about K12 and concluded that “we have our ear to the ground more for the negative than the positive.”

He hopes the commission will move forward with great scrutiny, particularly in how the local school board interacts with K12.

Others agreed.

“Every applicant comes here with risks,” said commission member Ande Smith. “These contract terms are essentially the same as we applied to other online charters. These are strong terms that mitigate the risks.”

Commission member John Bird said the more than two years of work that has gone into Maine Virtual Academy’s application has put the school in “a stronger position.”

“Some criticism is understandable … but we have accountability here,” he said. “Above all, it comes back to who is governing the school, and I think this board is as good as any we have in Maine.”

Besides Carlisle, a former employment lawyer, the charter school’s board includes Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority; educators Alan Casavant and Beth Lorigan; and businessmen Edward LeBlanc and Kevin Pomerleau.

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. That has been the standard model for Virginia-based K12, the nation’s largest online education company with schools in more than 30 states.

However, when Maine Virtual Academy officials presented their updated proposal to the commission last month, they said the school would be staffed by Mainers. In addition, the recommendation from the charter school commission includes a non-exclusivity provision that allows the school to contract with multiple companies for services, not just K12.

With Thursday’s approval, there are now three spots available for new charter schools in Maine under the state’s 10-school cap through 2021.

Maine’s other virtual charter, Maine Connections Academy, opened this fall and is based in South Portland.

During the last legislative session, a bipartisan proposal to create a state-run virtual charter passed but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

The Maine Education Association, which has opposed charter schools, has said the state should stop privatizing education. The union has expressed concerns that local tax dollars are going to out-of-state companies, and has proposed altering the way charter schools are funded by spreading the costs statewide to ease the burden on individual school districts. The Maine School Boards Association has estimated that virtual charter schools would cost districts that lose students an average of $8,500 per student.

“The private, for-profit virtual education model is great for investors but bad for kids. The state should take charge of virtual learning and run its own virtual school that puts students first,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the teachers union.

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