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Maine Legislative Democrats Conflicted on Virtual Schools
04/16/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The debate continues in Augusta over the right way to develop online - or "virtual" - public schools in Maine. Gov. Paul LePage strongly supports virtual charter schools, while Democratic leaders have generally resisted them. But as Jay Field reports, Democrats in Maine are facing pressure from Washington, and are more openly conflicted about how to proceed on the issue.

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Maine Legislative Democrats Conflicted on Virtual Listen

At a recent gathering of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, Senate President Justin Alfond, one of the Legislature's top two Democrats, took a hard line on virtual charter schools. "I stand here today, urging the committee to put a moratorium on virtual public charter schools," Alfond said.

In fact, Alfond is sponsoring a bill that would do just that.

"I've always felt that technology should play a huge part of a student's learning," he says. "But where I differ, I think, from at least right now, the full-time virtuals is that I don't believe we should be replacing the classroom. We should be enhancing the classroom."

Two years ago, the Legislature, controlled by Republicans at the time, passed laws allowing both virtual schools and charters in Maine. Last spring, two out-of-state, for-profit companies - K-12, Inc. and Connections Education - submitted applications to the state Charter School Commission to open virtual charters.

Maine Democrats had immediate reservations about the proposals. Democrats in many states take their cues on education policy from groups such as teachers' unions that are largely opposed to both charters and virtual schools.

Democrats here also point to national research that has raised serious questions about the performance of virtual schools tied to K-12, Inc. And last fall, an investigative series in the Portland Press Herald exposed the ways that a Florida foundation - connected to both K12 and Connections Education - had worked with the LePage administration to influence the development of virtual education in Maine.

"The for-profit status of a lot of the players in online education has been a difficult issue for some Democrats," says
Joe Williams, who heads the group Democrats for Eduation Reform. He says Democrats tend to take issue with the for-profit model when applied to public virtual schools.

"On the flip side, though, it tends to be for-profit operators that are most willing to invest in research and development to come up with the kind of game-changing innovations that we're looking to see in education," Williams says.

It's a big reason why, at the national level, President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have embraced virtual schools and charters, and pursued policies designed to push states to do so as well.

Williams says this sort of pressure from Washington means it's not quite so easy for Democrats in places like Maine to simply write off these kinds of approaches to education reform - which may explain why Democratic Sen. Emily Cain, of Orono, is behind a bill to create a state-run virtual school.

"I think looking at other state models would be good. Because the first question is, 'Who's going to need to use or access the virutal academy?'" Cain says.

The state-run model may garner more support from Democratic colleagues. But Joe Williams says there's a potential downside. "If a state-run system is being created as a way of trying to shut down the marketplace for innovation, it could end up being problematic," he says.

Still, Williams says Cain's idea of experimenting with virtual education through a state-run, online school could work - provided that the school is open to tapping into innovative approaches from the private sector that have delivered proven results.


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