January 28, 2013

Maine Senate president among those seeking to halt or ban virtual schools

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Five Democratic legislators -- including the top ranking lawmaker and the House co-chair of the Education Committee -- have requested bills to be drawn up that would either impose a moratorium on the approval of full-time virtual charter schools or ban them altogether.

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State Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland

Contributed photo

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The push represents a significant challenge to proponents of virtual charter schools, taxpayer-financed institutions through which students receive most or all of their education online, logging on from home computers.

Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature, and several influential legislators are behind the measures.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted a measure that would forbid the creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the state charter school commission can study and report out best practices for the schools.

"By creating a moratorium we could give the charter commission some time and allow them to take a long look at how the state of Maine wants to implement full-time virtual schools," said Alfond, who has previously sponsored bills to promote digital education. "I believe technology belongs in the classroom, but it needs to enhance the classroom, not replace the classroom."

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, has gone farther, requesting bills that would ban for-profit virtual charters and require that such schools be run by the state or existing school districts.

"I don't like the idea that they will be run by out-of-state, for-profit corporations," MacDonald said.

"I believe that all of these efforts are an attempt to pull apart the enterprise of public education, which I see as building on community and citizenship as well as on knowledge and personal development," he added. "It intends to deconstruct all that and send everybody off into their private corner where the only virtue is testable knowledge and all the other learning are let go."

The state charter school commission this month rejected two virtual charter schools that were to be operated by out-of-state companies, K12 Inc of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore. The online education companies -- the nation's largest -- were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of students' achievement.

Gov. Paul LePage responded to the charter commission angrily, holding two press conferences in which he called for its members to resign. Both virtual schools are expected to resubmit applications.

The head of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, which would be operated by K12 Inc., said there will be opposition to the new bills.

"We as a board, and the families who support this option, will oppose such legislation and hope to further educate the Legislature on the benefits a virtual charter school model, and in particular the Maine Virtual Academy, would bring to Maine families and students," said Amy Carlisle, the school's board president.

Maine Virtual Academy board secretary Peter Mills said he was surprised to learn of the proposed bills, given that the charter commission already has the authority to scrutinize the virtual schools. "To have these statutes seems to be to be overkill and unnecessary because there's no evidence that the charter commission isn't doing it's work properly or being thoughtful about it," Mills said.

Maine Republican Party vice chairwoman Ruth Summers, who is president of the rival Maine Connections Academy board, did not respond to an interview request.

In the past two weeks, schools operated by K12 Inc. have been the subject of renewed scrutiny in several states. Its 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy may lose its charter after authorities there expressed concern about the lack of local control over the company and the school's poor academic performance. In Tennessee last week, lawmakers grilled the head of the K12-operated Tennessee Virtual Academy after the school posted substandard test scores.

The company is also under investigation in Florida over allegations that it covered up the use of uncertified teachers at a school it operates, Florida Virtual Academy. Investor lawsuits were filed at a federal court in Virginia last year alleging deceptive enrolment, attendance, and recruitment bookkeeping to increase its taxpayer-supported revenues, which are based on the number of students enrolled.

"Virtual schools and their efficacy are in dispute now, so why are we diving into this?" said the sponsor of another moratorium on the schools, Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle. "We don't have enough money in our education system in Maine to fund what we'd like to do, so why are we going to funnel all this money out of state?"

A spokesperson for education commissioner Steve Bowen, who strongly supports virtual charters, did not respond to a request for comment.

All of the requested bills are being drawn up by the legislature's revisers, who may recommend some be folder together. Full text of the bills is expected next week.

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