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Gov. LePage Calls for Mass Charter School Committee Resignations
01/09/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Governor Paul LePage said members of Maine's Charter School Commission should resign unless they're willing to stand up to lobbyists trying to influence their decisions. The governor's comments at a morning news conference come a day after the commission rejected four applications for new charter schools in Maine, including two for "virtual" schools. LePage, who's a big supporter of online learning, has had running dispute with the commission.

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Paul LePage limits his interactions with the news media these days. A full blown press event usually takes place only when the governor has an important initiative to push or when someone or something has gotten under his skin. On Wednesday, these two precursors came together, moving LePage to appear before press microphones with Republican lawmakers and his top education advisor. Maine's public schools are failing, LePage noted, as he launched into a scathing critique of recent decisions by the state charter school commission.

"A year after the law passed, they said they weren't ready to tackle the virtual schools cause they didn't know enough about it. So they walked away from it. This year, they got some proposals," LePage said. "And what do they do? They don't even give them the opportunity to talk about it."

At it's meeting Tuesday, the charter commission rejected four proposals. Included were applications for two online schools, Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy. Last fall, around the time the two virtual schools moved to seek state approval, the Maine School Boards Association decided to fight the proposals. The group worries that virtual charters will siphon precious state education dollars away from traditional public schools. So ahead of Tuesday's vote, the groups wrote a letter to the charter commission, threatening legal action, if one of the virtual applications went forward. LePage said commission members allowed the school boards association to bully them.

"To intimidate them to the point where they were afraid to do their jobs," said LePage. "And frankly, I think those people, if they're afraid to do the job, if they can't put students first, then they ought to resign."

"If anyone so much as thinks, for one instance, that we were intimidated," said Jana LaPoint, chair of the Maine Charter School Commission. "Then they don't know the commission."

LaPoint said members had already decided to vote against the two virtual schools, and two other charter proposals, before they even laid eyes on the letter. The Maine School Boards Association later withdrew the letter, when it learned LaPoint and the other commissioners would be turning down the online applications.

"We very much followed the statutes and we did what we felt was in the best interests of the students of the state of Maine," LaPoint said. "And if we had been to approve those charters, I think that down the road we would have been held as derelict in our responsibility."

Two rival online learning companies, Virginia-based K12, Inc. and Baltimore's Connections Learning, submitted the two virtual proposals. In rejecting the schools, the commission cited concerns that neither had local governing boards that would be truly independent of their national parents, who would make major hiring, firing, budgetary and curriculum decisions far away from Maine. Back in September, a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation documented how the companies have been trying to influence the evolution of online learning in Maine. Connie Brown, Executive Director of the Maine School Management Association, said the charter commission made the right decisions.

"There is very little oversight of these companies. Their track record, as evidence in the information they gave the charter commission, by way of student achievement data, is poor," said Brown.

A study by researchers at Western Michigan University, cited in the Sunday Telegram series, found that less than 28% of the virtual schools run by K12 have made required yearly progress under federal education law. But Governor LePage said virtual charters represent the kind of school choice that's needed to rescue Maine's failing system. LePage said he wants to see a charter school panel that shares this view.

"And quite frankly, we ought to go back the legislature and change that structure because that structure is failing us," said LePage. "It's run by the status quo."

Right now, the charter commission has seven members. Three serve on the state board of education. The other four are appointed to the charter panel by the board. Board of Education members are appointed by the governor, but so far, LePage has only been able to name four people to the nine member board.

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