January 13

Maine commission reviews applications for four new charter schools

Two virtual schools are among the applicants hoping to open new charter schools in Maine.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Organizers of a virtual charter school that has been rejected twice by state officials made their case again Monday to members of the state Charter School Commission, saying the school would hire its own chief executive officer and chief financial officer instead of turning the management over to a national education provider.

“It really is a wholly different-looking school this time around,” said Amy Carlisle, board president for Maine Virtual Academy.

In its previous rejections of Maine Virtual applications to open a school in Maine, the commission cited a lack of local independence.

Maine Virtual Academy’s application was the first of four to be reviewed by the commission this month. The others are from Maine Connections Academy, another online virtual school; the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is backed by a group that tried to open a charter school in Bangor last year; and Many Hands Montessori School in Windham.

The commission will vote Jan. 30 on which applicants will go to the next stage in negotiating the details of a charter. In March, the commission will take a final vote on which applicants will be awarded charters to open.

In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. As many as 10 schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years. Five have opened.

Maine Virtual Academy is backed by K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Maine Connections Academy is backed by Connections Learning of Baltimore.

Those companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation in 2012 that showed they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.

After rejecting the virtual charter school applications for a second year, the commission established new requirements and a new application last summer specifically for virtual charter schools. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online.

Among the specific requirements are 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.

Despite those changes, questions about governance were raised again Monday by the commission’s review team, which pressed Carlisle to spell out how the CEO would retain authority over the school, with teachers and the director of instruction hired by K12 Inc.

Those K12 employees “have to know that (the CEO) is the board’s go-to person,” said commission member John Bird.

Carlisle said the school board sees the CEO as the equivalent of a superintendent.

“Some issues go to the principal (the director of instruction) and they don’t go to the superintendent,” she said. “We don’t see the CEO as being a figurehead who is not part of every process in running the school.”

Among the issues clarified Monday was that instructors of core subjects, hired by K12, would live in Maine and be employed to teach only students at Maine Virtual Academy. In other business units of K12, some teachers are shared by multiple schools in various states. Maine Virtual Academy may use out-of-state teachers for electives or for specialty classes with low numbers of students, such as Advanced Placement classes.

On Jan. 24, the review team will consider the application from Lewiston-Auburn, which 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. While they are secular and often top performers academically, the schools have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, 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.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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