Maine Mulls Multiple Online Education Options, Funding

Portland, Maine’s superintendent of schools Emmanuel Caulk received no support for his proposal to provide online education to students who were going to leave the district to attend a charter school.

Noel K. Gallagher of the Portland Press Herald says that the city’s mayor was against the idea, the state’s highest education official thought it was not a financially viable choice, and the School Board had too many questions for Caulk.

Caulk’s idea was to convince seven students who intended to enroll in a charter school to return to the Portland district and take the Portland School District’s virtual online program, which officials thought would be exactly like the program at the charter school.

The charter school is for students in grades 7 – 12 and will use teachers and coursework from Pearson for the virtual charter school Maine Connections Academy.  The state gives $7,000 per student in education aid, which would go to the charter school if a student enrolls there.

For students who enrolled in Portland’s online program, the district would pay Pearson $4,250. With other program fees, the cost per student would be $5,000 per student for the Portland online program.  $2,000 would be left and would go into state aid to the district, according to Caulk.

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond (D – Portland), is planning to bring back two bills related to charter schools which did not get passed in the last session: one, a state-run virtual charter school and the other, a bill to spread the costs of charter schools across all state school districts.  Now, charter schools run on the state per pupil money that students who choose to enroll in their school bring with them.

 “The state charter law is moving on in years and we’re starting to see the effects and you’re starting to see some real patterns,” Alfond said, when asked why the legislation might have a better chance of success in the upcoming session. “I think the patterns will push legislators on both sides of the aisle” to support the measures.

The idea to have all state schools contribute an equal amount to fund charter schools has strong support.

There are six charter schools in Maine which are publicly funded and are not under the public school school districts.  There is a cap on the number of charter schools which can be in the state, allowing only 10 charter schools until 2021. Three groups applied in August for permission to open new charter schools in Maine.

“Honestly, I don’t have a sense of what concretely I’m looking at. I don’t understand the time frame, I don’t understand the scope,” school board member Justin Costa said. “I feel like this is a pretty profound shift in how we provide education, and we’re being asked to outsource this and I can’t see what it means … I certainly can’t see the financial implications.”

Although Caulk says he will answer the board’s questions, according Gallagher, Caulk added that the administration does not need the board’s approval since this is a curriculum issue.  As long as it stays within the 2015 budget which has already been approved, it does not need board approval.

Plus, Caulk calls the program a pilot effort  and an opportunity to learn along with parents who have decided to leave the district, whether the state can run an excellent online program or not.  But Chief Academic Officer David Galin said the courses would have to be offered to all students.

Nell Gluckman, in an article for the Bangor Daily News, reports that Lewiston Public School Superintendent Bill Webster wants to create more pathways for students, and likes the virtual charter school idea. Bangor School Department Superintendent Betsy Webb says she is not looking into this possibility.  Maine’s first virtual charter school currently has 300 students enrolled.

The problem that Maine’s school districts have with students taking their state and local funding with them when they enroll in a charter school is that many school expenses cannot be broken down into per pupil costs.  The number of teachers will likely not change; heating costs will remain the same; the number of sports teams will probably remain at the same, as will the number of buses.

“It’s fair to say that the existence of charter schools in Maine is forcing public school districts to look at how they can compete in this new marketplace,” Webster said. “If the public is showing that online education has value to it, then if we’re going to compete, we need to offer it.”