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Maine Panel Approves State's First Virtual Charter School
03/03/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine regulators have approved the creation of Maine's first virtual charter school. But the ability of Maine Connections Academy to open in September will depend on whether the school can meet a long list of conditions. And as Jay Field reports, the Legislature is also considering a bill that would place a moratorium on all virtual charters until 2015.

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who backs virtual charters, is all but certain to veto a temporary ban if it reaches his desk, and it's unclear whether supporters could generate enough support to override him. State regulators, meantime, have struggled with their own longstanding concerns with online learning, twice denying charter school applications backed by two national, for-profit operators.

But on Monday, one of those proposals finally won approval. "Look across the whole country and there's success, there's failure," said Jana LaPoint, who chairs of the Maine Charter School Commission, speaking with reporters after the unanimous vote to approve Maine Connections Academy. "We're trying to find that ground that says that we have something that's good. And that we can oversee it enough."

For now, at least, LaPoint and her fellow commissioners are opting for some pretty heavy oversight to ensure success. To open in September, Maine Connections will have to agree to 13 requirements as part of its contract with the state. Initial enrollment will be limited to 270 students in grades 7-9, and and won't be allowed to rise until the Charter Commission sees proof that the kids are doing well academically.

Carol Weston, who heads the Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity, is a board member at Maine Connections. "A virtual school in Maine is brand new," she said. "I think that those requirements are there to make sure that the kids in Maine succeed."

Other contract requirements cover ongoing concerns that the school be able to operate independently from its Baltimore-based, for-profit parent company. Connections Education, LLC, a division of Pearson Education, is one of the biggest player in the online learning space.

To enter into negotiations on a charter contract, Maine Connections must agree to hire a third party to evaluate its ongoing relationship with its parent. The Maine school's local board must also have the authority to sever that relationship if it isn't serving students well.

Weston says that won't be a problem. "We will hold them accountable, just as the commission is holding us," she said.

The Maine Charter School Commission had less confidence that the board of the other virtual applicant would be as engaged or autonomous. Commissioner Heidi Sampson spoke moments before the Maine Virtual Academy again failed to get enough votes to move forward.

Sampson says it seemed like most of the work on the school's application had been left to one member of the board. "And it just raises the question: Is this board, essentially - if they're low involvement, as it appears to me - would they only be rubber stampers for the ESP?"

Maine Virtual Academy's parent, or ESP, is K12, Learning Inc. The company, whose schools across the country have produced mixed results, has been investigated in the state of Florida and accused of misrepresenting student turnover numbers by former employees.

Connie Brown is Executive Director of the Maine School Management Association. Brown says the Charter Commission's conditional endorsement of one virtual school and rejection of another only highlights her group's worries about virtual education.

"I remain concerned about the amount of money that will be taken out of Maine schools for students persuing a virtual education," Brown says. "It is further splintering resources that are already scarce."

Brown says it would be better for the state to experiment with virutal learning gradually, through the Maine Digital Learning Exchange that's being proposed as part of placing a temporary ban on online charters. The Maine Senate could take that bill up as early as this week.



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