For Third Time, Two Groups Seek Virtual Charter Approval In Maine

Is the third time a charm? In Maine, two groups are again looking for state approval to open online schools. This is a third attempt by Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy to seek approval from the state Charter School Commission. The state twice rejected their plans for virtual charter schools, writes Noel K. Gallagher of Portland of Press Herald.

In 2011, the lawmakers passed legislation to allow charter schools in Maine. The charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts, offering alternatives for students. As many as 10 schools can be approved in the state in the first 10 years and so far five schools have opened.

Two other groups filed applications for brick-and-mortar charter schools. The first application is for Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, while the other application is for the Many Hands Montessori School in Windham.

On December 3rd, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy gave presentations to the Charter School Commission on virtual charter schools. Both groups are backed by national companies. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home with lessons delivered online.

Maine Virtual Academy is backed by Herndon, Va.-based 12 Inc. and Maine Connections Academy is backed by Connections Learning of Baltimore. Those companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published last year, that showed that they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students' achievement.

The Charter School Commission created new requirements and a new application this summer just for virtual charter schools. The commission made new requirements after rejecting the virtual charter school applications for a second year.

The new requirements, among others, include weekly face-to-face time for students and instructors, and a school board that is clearly independent of the school's education service provider, which usually is a national company.

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the level of detail the applicants provided indicates that they are thinking about issues the commission raised. "There is a lot more accountability here, a lot more about (in-person contact with students)," Lapoint said after the presentations. "All of the things we had great concern about."

The proposed charter school in Lewiston-Auburn would be part of a network of 800 schools operated internationally by followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen. The group's application for a charter school in Bangor was denied in early 2013.

Followers of Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, "60 Minutes," USA Today and other news organizations.

The schools are often top performers and have an entirely secular curriculum, but they have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, their hiring and financial practices and concerns about their motivation, which experts say has as much to do with shaping the evolution of Turkey as it does with educating young Americans.

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