Maine’s Education Committee At Standstill Over Virtual Schools

Maine’s attempt at a state-created virtual charter school hit a standstill last week at the Legislature’s Education Committee meeting. The committee is at issue on voting on LD 1736, a measure sponsored by state Senator Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, which would put a temporary prohibition on the authorization of virtual charter schools while the state develops its own virtual offerings.

All eyes are on this bill as the Maine Charter School Commission is still in consideration of two virtual school applications, which they will vote for or against on the newly decided date of March 3rd.

Christopher Cousins of Bangor Daily News writes that Langley’s original proposal was for the state to lead an effort to create a virtual academy which would be available to every student in Maine — from public school students to homeschoolers and private school attendees — but he presented an amendment on Tuesday that changed the concept to creating a sort of online exchange through which numerous entities inside and outside Maine would offer courses. RSU 74 Superintendent Ken Coville helped Langley develop the amendment and presented it to the committee Tuesday afternoon.

Jeff Mao, the Maine Department of Education’s learning technology policy director, said the resources needed to create such a system — especially one that tracks student progress and includes a way to continually assess its own quality — would be considerable, if it’s possible at all.

“The challenge is that these pieces that [Coville] described are not as trivial to build as we might think,” said Mao. “It does presume a lot of infrastructure that sits on top of it that today has yet to exist anywhere.”

Mao described it as a “holy grail” idea that education experts have tried not only currently in Maine but nationwide and all have so far failed.

Despite concern, many are still interested in pursuing an opportunity to create a system that will allow all students access to a statewide virtual school.

The difference between a statewide virtual school that has drawn the cynicism of education technology expert Mao and the two proposed virtual schools is that students would have the option to take a single lesson to a full year’s worth of courses.

Some are interested in the concept of offering students’ these options by favoring a model based on the online system in Vermont where teachers offer their courses online to students in other schools concurrently to their in-person one, or similar to that in New Hampshire which has funds set to the side for students to take courses from already existing virtual schools.

Many like Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor and also a member of the committee, “I certainly appreciate the proposal that’s before us and I see a lot of value in that,” Hubbell stated.“Having been thinking about this for a while, all along I felt this tension between recognizing that there is an immediate and urgent need and opportunity for virtual learning and then the simultaneous realization that the task is a large and ambitious one, and that we also need time to ensure that ultimately we are doing something thoughtful. … I’m interested in whatever we can do as quickly as possible to give these opportunities to all Maine students.”