Students with emotional, physical, intellectual and learning disabilities are over twice as likely as other young people to drop out of high school – a decision with grave long-term consequences, including lower earnings, higher unemployment and a greater incarceration rate.

It’s not surprising, then, that the public discussion of online charter schools has focused on their potential for serving kids who don’t fit in traditional schools. And Maine is moving ahead with full-time virtual charter education – the Maine Connections Academy was launched this fall, while an application to open the Maine Virtual Academy is up for state approval Thursday.

But a different model – in which public school districts supplement traditional classes with online ones – would provide the same benefits as full-time virtual schools while making room for educators with experience in accommodating different student needs. Though Gov. LePage vetoed a state-run virtual school bill earlier this year, legislators shouldn’t let this setback keep them from giving this forward-thinking approach a second chance.

How many disabled students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, and how well do they perform there? We don’t know much. Just 92 of 338 full-time U.S. virtual schools have reported special education data, and they say that the proportion of disabled students in full-time virtual schools is about half the average in all U.S. public schools. But very little has been published about how these young people measure up academically.

How well are students without disabilities performing in full-time virtual schools? Not very. A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into K12, which runs the Maine Virtual Academy, and Connections Education, which runs the Maine Connections Academy, found that the companies’ schools in other states have fared poorly in analyses of student achievement. So it’s not unreasonable to surmise that disabled students might be even worse off in full-time virtual classrooms.

A lot depends on the support system that the disabled student has in place, such as teachers, special education directors, psychologists and speech or physical therapists. Bricks-and-mortar schools have had these teams in place for decades, and the blended approach rejected by Gov. LePage in March allows for innovation.

For example, teachers with the state-run North Carolina Virtual Public School have been paired with special education instructors for more than 2,000 students at traditional schools in that state. The virtual educators deliver much of the core content of courses like Algebra I and English, while the classroom teachers plan lessons so that they’re as accessible as possible for the kids.

Gov. LePage is an enthusiastic supporter of charter schools, and he has said that he vetoed the proposal to evaluate the costs and formation of a state-run virtual school because it would have imposed a simultaneous moratorium on other virtual institutions. If legislators can craft a new bill that leaves out the moratorium while allowing for the study of a state-run school, they could offer greater educational opportunities to young people who need and deserve them.


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