Maine Debates Merits Of State-Run Virtual School

Lawmakers in Maine are pushing a plan that would create an online school run by the state, and policymakers are reviewing new performance and governance standards for online charter schools as the bid progresses.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley and co-sponsored by several Democrats on the Education Committee, the proposal L.D.1736 to create a state-run online school is supported by several education groups that have vocally opposed virtual charter schools, including the Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers. Langley says the state run virtual school will give students the benefit of online learning while avoiding the risks that go along with turning over administration of the schools to companies.

In spite of that support, the proposal faces challenges that include resistance from the LePage administration. This opposition is based on a provision in the bill that freezes approval of virtual charter schools until the state run virtual school becomes operational by August 2016.

The freeze on the Maine Charter School Commission's approval of virtual charter schools was a no-go for opponents. One opponent was Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs at the Maine Department of Education, who said the two-year moratorium would stifle access to virtual schools that could open earlier.

Friedman was referring to two virtual school applicants that were previously rejected by the charter commission but that recently won initial approval last week. The Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy were rejected in the early round of votes by the commission, partially because of concerns that the schools would not be sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide the curriculum and largely manage the schools.

Steve Mistler of the Kennebec Journal reports that the two applicant schools had representatives testify against the bill. President of the board for Maine Connections Academy Amy Volk said the proposal would be a "financial debacle, costing millions of dollars in taxpayer money". Online charter schools, while publicly funded, operate independently of public school districts, with students learning at home through online lessons.

Despite the opposition to Langley's bill, supporters said the proposal had a successful precedent in Vermont and New Hampshire, which are among several states that operate virtual schools, allowing public school districts to blend traditional learning with an online curriculum. Approximately 24 states allow the so-called "blended" curriculum, according to the 2013 Keeping Pace report by the Evergreen Education Group.

Currently around 50 Maine High Schools offer online courses for students. Robert Hasson of the Maine School Management Association says that state run academy would help coordinate these classes and avoid redundancy. The proposal would also state that the virtual school teachers under the state run school would be certified Maine Educators.

"One can envision a day when excellent Maine teachers are able to share their lessons with a much wider audience," Hasson said. "Imagine what this would do for rural small schools that simply can't afford the breadth of curriculum that would better challenge their students and keep them engaged."

Susan Campbell with the Maine School Boards Associations says the proposal could extend course availability to low-income districts and control costs. Currently the cost for virtual charter schools includes sending school districts around $8,500 per student.

The LePage administration says charter schools and virtual charter schools are important for accommodating the different needs of students and for reforming the state's education system.

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