Politics

February 26

Proposal for state-run virtual school wins preliminary approval

The House backs a measure that would also place a moratorium on private online schools.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill to study the creation of a state-run virtual school and place a moratorium on private virtual charter schools.

The proposal, L.D. 1736, is sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and co-sponsored by several Democrats on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

It directs the Department of Education to form a stakeholder group to determine the costs and structure of a state-run academy that would afford students and school districts the benefits of online course learning.

It also includes a provision that halts the authorization of virtual charter schools run by private companies for up to a year. The latter measure has generated the most opposition from supporters of virtual charter schools and Gov. Paul LePage, a longtime advocate of charter schools and virtual charter schools.

Supporters of L.D. 1736 say a state-run school would provide students and districts with the same benefits of online learning while avoiding some of the risks inherent in turning over the administration of the schools to private companies. The proposal surfaced as state policymakers review new performance and governance standards for virtual charter schools.

The bill is supported by several education groups that have been vocal opponents of virtual charter schools, including the Maine Education Association, the union representing public school teachers.

The House voted 94-51 to approve the bill in a vote that broke mostly along party lines. Democrats, who have opposed virtual charter schools, have the majority in the House and Senate. Subsequent votes will be taken, possibly this week.

The charter schools would be publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and with limited face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators.

Despite early bipartisan support and a significant amendment that shortened the length of the moratorium, the proposal faces many obstacles. Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs at the Maine Department of Education, told lawmakers earlier this month that the moratorium would squelch access to one or more virtual charter schools that could open as soon as this fall.

Two virtual school applicants that were previously rejected by the Maine Charter School Commission won initial approval by the panel in January. 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.

Representatives of the two applicant schools testified against the bill, including Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, president of the board for Maine Connections Academy. Volk also spoke against the bill during the House floor debate.

Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, said the proposal was a suspicious mix of good – a state-run virtual school – and bad – a moratorium. Pouliot said his attempts to amend the bill to strip out the moratorium were rejected by the Education Committee.

“This bill is really about the moratorium,” he said.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, disputed that claim. He said the moratorium was meant only to buy time while the state explored its own academy to benefit all students in Maine.

Vermont and New Hampshire 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.

Approximately 50 Maine high schools offer students online courses, according to Robert Hasson of the Maine School Management Association, which supported the bill.

Opponents said the Maine venture would be costly. Friedman, with the state Department of Education, told lawmakers on the Education Committee during the public hearing that replicating the New Hampshire academy could cost about $6.5 million.

Virtual charter schools have come under additional scrutiny, locally and nationally, for performance and governance issues that involve concerns over whether the schools are sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide curriculum and manage the schools.

The Maine Charter School Commission created new screening requirements to address such concerns.

For example, the two virtual school applicants previously rejected by the commission won initial approval last week after saying that local school boards will hire and employ the administrators of the schools.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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