State legislators are considering various ways to offer online school resources to Maine teachers and students, from fee-based individual courses to creating an entirely state-run virtual academy that would be open to all Maine students for free.

“We have a lot of poorer districts that can’t afford to provide a range of courses,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, who is sponsoring L.D. 391, one of two virtual education bills up for public hearings Thursday before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “This might be a less expensive way for those districts to offer that content. In some cases, it might be accessing a course for several hundred dollars as opposed to hiring a full-time staff person.”

The move comes in the wake of two virtual charter schools that have been approved in Maine, including one that opened last year.

Hubbell’s bill would have the Maine Department of Education work with a committee to develop state-backed online learning resources and possibly create a state-sponsored virtual school. It also calls for an arrangement for Maine students to be able to participate in New Hampshire’s existing online school, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, by this fall.

The other bill, L.D. 1230, by the committee’s Senate chairman, Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, would set up an online website that is curated and overseen by the Department of Education. The site would allow education vendors to pay to place class material on the Maine site that would be available for users. In turn, the vendors could charge a fee to access the classes.

Langley said Friday that the two bills may be combined after the committee discusses the proposals. Langley sponsored a bill in the last session almost identical to Hubbell’s current bill, although Hubbell’s version eliminates language that would impose a moratorium on new virtual charter schools. The bill last year drew bipartisan support, including from some Republicans who would otherwise oppose a moratorium, and some Democrats who would otherwise oppose a virtual charter school.

Langley said the current proposals are an effort to create a single place online with pre-vetted material, perhaps with a feature that would allow Trip Advisor- or Yelp-style reviews.

Ideally, a state online portal would be available for teachers and students to use.

“There are so many things out there,” Langley said, referring to existing online education sites such as Khan Academy. “We’re looking to see if there’s a way to kind of streamline this process and make it easier for folks to find good content.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said it had no comment on the bills in advance of Thursday’s public hearing.

TRADITIONAL AND ONLINE BLEND

State-run virtual schools allow school districts to blend traditional learning with an online curriculum. Approximately 24 states allow the so-called “blended” curriculum.

The state’s first virtual charter school opened last fall and another has been approved to open this fall. They are nonprofit organizations run by Mainers who form a board of directors, which in turn buys educational materials and services from large for-profit national companies.

But those schools must cap their enrollment and enroll only full-time students. A state-sponsored site would allow any of Maine’s brick-and-mortar schools to pick and choose individual courses to supplement local classes, or allow students to attend virtual classes part- or full-time, with support as needed from teachers at their local schools.

Langley said he liked the Ohio site, called ilearnOhio, which is funded by the state legislature and administered by and located at Ohio State University, under the direction of the Ohio Board of Regents. That site has a searchable database of content from multiple education content vendors that is pre-approved and in line with the state’s education standards. In addition to courses, it offers classroom resources such as tests and tools to monitor student use. Most of the content is free for Ohio schools, but the site also offers fee-based courses.

New Hampshire’s site, created in 2007, is an online virtual public high school and middle school, free to New Hampshire residents and available for either part-time or full-time students. Students from other states can attend for a fee. The New Hampshire school is funded by the state’s Education Trust Fund, which gets money from statewide property and utility taxes and portions of business and

tobacco taxes, sweepstakes funds, and tobacco settlement funds.

The head of Maine’s teachers union said it supports a state-run virtual academy, and a state-sponsored site with online learning resources.

“We know that some districts have had to make cutbacks and this gives an opportunity to students to get that fourth year of a language or an advanced science course,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association.

A digital portal, she said, offers less direct support and oversight for students.

“If you just put up a bunch of courses and kids can go pick and choose, it becomes more of a smorgasbord, and you can’t be sure of quality control,” she said.

Online educational resources are already available to Maine students, from free websites to educational cooperatives such as Virtual High School, which already serves about 50 Maine high schools. In Virtual High School, the school pays a fee, or has a teacher who can teach an online class, to gain access to the company’s resources.

The Maine Department of Education maintains a list of preapproved online learning providers. The eight schools currently on the list include New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy and the two for-profit education providers working with the state’s virtual charter schools.

Maine Connections Academy, the state’s existing virtual charter school, 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 U.S.

Maine Virtual Academy is slated to open in the fall, and contracts with K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia, the nation’s largest online education company, for academic services.

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, that the companies recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.