Following the opening of two virtual charter schools in Maine, state officials are trying to find a way to offer a state-sponsored version that would offer online texts and courses for all Maine students.

But testimony on two virtual education bills Thursday highlighted the disagreements over how best to do it.

“I think almost all Maine schools are (already) accessing online content to some extent,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, sponsor of one of the bills, L.D. 39.

“We don’t know how well integrated that is. I’m assuming there’s a lot more opportunity out there than is being taken advantage of,” Hubbell told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee at a public hearing Thursday.

Hubbell’s bill would have the Maine Department of Education work to develop state-backed online learning resources and possibly create a state-sponsored virtual school. It also requires the state to partner with New Hampshire, so Maine students could enroll in that state’s online school, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, by this fall.

The state Department of Education opposes that bill, in part because it would require them to work with New Hampshire instead giving them a choice of vendors, and because the state believes teachers and students already have access to online tools ranging from fee-based courses to free websites open to all, such as Khan Academy or the state-funded AP4All advanced placement online courses.

“Schools have no problem finding additional quality online learning resources and opportunities,” said Mike Muir, the department’s director of the Learning Through Technology team.

The education department supports another virtual education bill, L.D.1230, sponsored by the committee’s Senate chairman, Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, that would set up an online website curated and overseen by the department. Education vendors would pay to place class materials on the site and charge users for access to the classes.

Hubbell and Langley both emphasized the need for a single website that pools materials that have been vetted and approved by the state, and has some sort of user-review system, something Langley compared to Amazon and its feedback section. Such as site could list a generally available Khan Academy math course, but also inform users that the course had been reviewed and specifically meets Maine’s seventh-grade math requirements.

A similar bill to establish an online library of education resources had bipartisan support last session, but was defeated because it included language that would have imposed a moratorium on new virtual charter schools. The current bills do not reference charter schools.

Although Hubbell’s bill could set up the equivalent of a state-sponsored virtual school, discussion Thursday focused on offering individual courses for teachers, districts, students or any Maine resident to access.

The state’s teachers union and the Maine School Management Association supported both bills.

“We know many small schools, particularly rural Maine high schools, may struggle to provide a myriad of courses to students, especially during times of extreme budgetary restriction,” said John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association. “(Hubbell’s bill) will get Maine on the right path.”

Online educational resources are already available to Maine students, from free websites to educational cooperatives such as the fee-based Virtual High School, which already serves about 50 Maine high schools.

The Maine Department of Education also lists 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 found that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members to lobby for creation of charter schools in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.

Langley said he modeled his legislation on an Ohio site, called ilearnOhio, which is funded with about $1.5 million from 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. Most content is free for Ohio schools, but the site also offers fee-based courses.

Langley said he didn’t think Maine’s costs would be as high as Ohio’s, and suggested a Maine site could be funded through the Fund for Efficient Delivery of Education Services, which the state DOE can use to issue grants.

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.

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