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July 2, 2013

Maine tightens virtual charter school laws

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

AUGUSTA – Maine's Charter School Commission is tightening its rules for virtual charter schools and likely will approve no more than one of the online schools -- if any -- next year.

"They're untried," Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said after a commission meeting Tuesday. "Many of them (in other states) have gone down because they weren't well thought out at the beginning."

On Tuesday, the commission considered new requirements for applications from virtual charter schools, following its rejection of the same two virtual charter schools two years running.

Among the commission's 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 large national company.

Two companies, K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore, were the subjects of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, that showed that they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

Applications for virtual charter schools associated with the two companies have been rejected by the commission in the past two years, most recently in January.

K12 Inc. has been at the center of controversies in states such as Colorado, Tennessee and Florida.

The language to lay out Maine's requirements is still being revised. A special meeting is scheduled July 30 to determine how the commission will score applications, and the final language is expected to be approved by the commission on Aug. 6.

Among the proposed new requirements is a rule that the school board pay the head of school directly, not outsource that to the education service provider.

Many of those companies provide services, for a fee, that are typically handled by a finance or human resources department, such as preparing the school budget or posting job applications and winnowing applicants to a handful of finalists for a school board to review.

The proposed language would allow virtual charter schools only for grades 7-12, and limit them to 300 students in all grades in the first year and 750 by the fifth year.

Virtual schools are paid for by taxpayers. Students learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online. Under Maine's model, students would meet weekly with each other and an educator.

States such as Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have considered moratoriums on virtual charter schools.

A study released in July 2012 by researchers at Western Michigan University showed that only 27.7 percent of the full-time virtual schools run by K12 Inc., the nation's largest online education company, met federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress goals, compared with 52 percent of public schools.

Students of its schools scored lower in both reading and math and had a graduation rate of only 49 percent, well below the 79 percent average among comparable students at public schools in the 24 states where the virtual schools operate.

In Pennsylvania, where 30,000 students are in virtual schools at an average cost of $10,000 each, students scored 13 percentage points lower in reading and 24 percentage points lower in math than students at conventional public schools, according to a 2011 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Lapoint said the commission wants to make sure that the first virtual charter schools in Maine will succeed.

"We take our job very, very seriously, so to go slowly is important to us," she said.

Lapoint said she thinks Maine is taking the right path in spelling out rigorous standards for virtual charter schools, even if other states haven't had the same expectations.

"Philosophies differ. I think we're going to lead the way on virtuals," she said.

The commission had discussed not accepting any charter school applications next year, citing a limited budget and a heavy workload monitoring the progress of the five charter schools that have been approved.

But Lapoint said she met with Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who agreed to make Education Department personnel available to help commission members on a case-by-case basis. For example, she said, the commission could ask that the department's staff review an application to assess an academic plan, or special education plans, and provide written feedback to the commission.

Bowen was firmly against slowing down the charter school process, she said.

The state budget that took effect Monday increased the commission's budget from $28,000 a year to $150,000 a year. The commissioners are unpaid volunteers, and the paid two-person staff, an executive director and an assistant, work 30 hours a week.

Executive Director Bob Kautz has noted that the upcoming year will include direct oversight of the operating charter schools, and a need to create procedural rules to flesh out the two-year-old law authorizing charter schools.

Among the needed rules are policies on charter revocation and renewal, charter school expansion and closure, and charter school replication -- if a school wanted to open another campus in another town.

Kautz noted Tuesday that only one application had been received for a position on the commission, which faces two vacancies: William Shuttleworth has submitted his resignation effective Aug. 31, and Vice Chairman Richard Barnes has said he intends to step down.

The board voted to reappoint Lapoint as chairwoman for another year. The new vice chairwoman is Shelley Reed.

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com





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