Maine Charter School Commission Nearing Virtual School Cap

Virtual schools in Maine are about to hit a ceiling. The Maine Charter School Commission is permitted to authorize public charter schools in the state, and the Commission can approve up to 10 public charter schools during the first 10 years of the state’s charter school law.

So far, the commission has approved five schools and this year seven more indicated that they will apply for the last five spots. Two of those potential applicants include virtual schools that have twice been rejected by the charter commission. The virtual schools, including The Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, want to apply to the commission for the third time, writes Caroline Cornish of Wcsh6.com.

Both Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy were rejected by the commission because the out of state corporations that provide the curriculum would have too much control over the local school board.

Proponents say that students at virtual schools do not spend all their time staring at a screen. Parent Patricia Negron said that said virtual education allows her 3 children to work at their own pace, take field trips when appropriate, and even meet other students from time to time.

“The experience has been tremendous. The curriculum is terrific. It actually adapts to the child,” Negron said.

Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA) has a curriculum run by one of the companies hoping to partner with a school board in Maine. Amy Carlisle, the president of Maine Learning Innovations, plans to bring their K12 curriculum to the state in the form of Maine Virtual Academy.

According to Carlisle, the two rejections by charter commission has helped her and the other local board members focus on bringing a small virtual school experience to about 300 7-12th graders in Maine.

“We’re talking about a really small group of students to start this school with. So that will enable our board, our head of school, our head of instruction, to really wrap their hands around how it’s working for each student,” Carlisle said.

Critics say that charter schools have an abysmal record in other states and have no place in Maine. Research by the Maine Education Association on virtual schools points to a study out of Stanford University showing Pennsylvania’s virtual students tended to be more affluent than traditional school peers, but scored worse on tests.

Researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center found only 33% of students using the K-12 virtual curriculum met Adequate Yearly Progress in their states.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2009 conducted a study revealing that students who take classes online could do better than those in traditional classrooms. The charter school commission believes virtual schools can work in Maine with the right plan and local control.

The charter commission also set new rules for proposed virtual schools in 2013. Under the new rules, virtual schools can only serve students in grades 7-12, that they have a small student population, that students need face to face contact with teachers at least once a week, and that local boards have to do the hiring and firing of school management.

Carlisle said she understands what’s expected, and her board thinks the charter commission’s demands make a lot of sense. The board is modeling its new approach on virtual schools in Michigan, where students have regular face to face contact with teachers online, and the results have been good. Michigan Virtual Academy has been given the green light to expand.