It’s good to remember that charter schools, particularly virtual schools, were going to fix what was wrong with public education.

Charter schools – publicly funded, independently managed entities that compete with traditional public schools – were supposed to give families choices that otherwise would not exist. A decade ago, Democrats like Barack Obama and Republicans like Paul LePage, who agreed on little else, fought opposition from teachers unions and others to bring choice into public education. It was believed that market principles and program flexibility would result in more engaged students and better outcomes.

Eight years into Maine’s experiment, the arguments are not being made so forcefully. There have been some successes and some setbacks but no sign of a transformed educational system. There’s more evidence that charter schools are less effective than traditional schools, from which the charters draw resources.

A good example comes from the Maine Virtual Academy, one of two virtual schools in Maine, which is applying for a new four-year charter. Maine’s public schools graduate 87 percent of their seniors. Maine Virtual Academy graduates 49 percent.

The virtual school, at which students work from home over the internet, also has a chronic absenteeism problem, with 30 percent of students failing to connect during mandatory live classes.

Maine Virtual Academy officials say that they have made considerable progress since the most recent third-party evaluation of the school – which reflects information collected in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years and the fall of 2018 – and they will be able to demonstrate it to the Maine Charter School Commission when their charter comes up for renewal. That may be true, but it’s hardly the confident assurances made by advocates of virtual charter schools when the idea was first presented in Maine back in 2011.

What the two virtual schools offer is an alternative for a small number of students for whom a traditional school is  not an option. A troubling share of Maine Virtual Academy students, 13 percent, say that they are escaping bullying, not seeking academic enrichment in a individualized program.

It turns out that the biggest critics of the charter school experiment – the experienced teachers and administrators at traditional public schools – had it right. This is an alternative that may work for a small number of kids, but the real problems with education come from a lack of resources, not a lack of new technology.

Programs that support families and teachers in regular public schools will do more to improve educational achievement than niche programs that are dreamed up by some think tank.

 

 


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