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MAINE: Education committee approves moratorium on virtual charter schools

virtual-charter-schoolsAUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools in Maine while state officials and educators come up with a plan to offer online learning tools to all Maine students by the fall.

Under the amended bill, L.D. 1736, a stakeholder group would work with a consortium of school administrative units to develop a request for proposals to have the state partner with New Hampshire’s state-run virtual academy to allow any Maine student to access their online resources by this fall.

Bill sponsor Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, has said that he has already broached a possible partnership with the New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy.

The bill also imposes a moratorium on any virtual charter schools between the time the RFP is issued on July 3, and January 15, 2015, when the stakeholder group reports back to the Education Committee on a plan to provide online learning resources to Maine students, whether in the form of a virtual school or a portal with multiple online education resources.

The committee voted 11-2 in favor of the bill, with dissenting votes from Republican Representatives Michael McClellan, of Raymond, and Matthew Pouliot, of Augusta. The two said they supported the concept of the bill, but without the moratorium.

The bill now goes to the legislature.

If it becomes law, the moratorium will affect two virtual charter school applications under active consideration by the Maine Charter School Commission. The commission will vote March 3 on whether to approve them to open in the fall.

The charter commission can still vote on the schools’ applications while the legislation makes its way through the State House, but commissioners would be prevented from moving forward if the moratorium is enacted.

Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the commission could also decide on March 3 to approve a virtual charter application with conditions, to accommodate the Langley bill.

Lapoint said she “absolutely” supported Langley’s bill, except for the moratorium, noting that the commission spent almost two years setting up strict oversight and benchmarks for any potential virtual charter school. But she welcomed being part of the stakeholders group to form Maine’s online learning options.

“It’s a good way to go, for both of us,” Lapoint said to Langley, as they talked after the committee hearing. Langley encouraged her to “keep on going” with the commission’s work, but noted that his intent is to have the current virtual school applications put on hold while the stakeholder group works on its report.

Langley has said a state-run virtual school would give all students and school districts the benefits of online learning while avoiding some of the risks inherent in turning over the administration of the schools to private companies. A portal would allow schools and teachers — or parents — to have a curated and state-approved offering of online options.

Langley acknowledged that Gov. Paul LePage is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, and said he didn’t have any sense of whether he could collect the necessary two-thirds vote to overturn a veto.

But a coalition is clearly in the making: Langley’s bill has already drawn some Republicans who would otherwise oppose a moratorium, and some Democrats who would otherwise oppose a virtual charter school. Two Republicans on the Education Committee, Rep. Joyce Maker, of Calias, and Rep. Peter Johnson, of Greenville, both supported the bill.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday that the Democratic caucus supported the bill, and he expects both chambers to vote on the bill before the Charter Commission’s March 3 vote.

The state-run virtual schools allow public school districts to blend traditional learning with an online curriculum. Approximately 24 states allow the so-called “blended” curriculum.

There are already many online educational resources available to Maine students and schools, from free Khan Academy-type websites to educational cooperatives such as Virtual High School, which already serves about 50 Maine high schools. In Virtual High School, the school pays a fee or has a teacher who can teach an online class to gain access to the company’s online educational resources.

The state also offers AP4ALL, a program that provides free online Advanced Placement courses to students who can’t get them at their local high school. The University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System also offer many courses online.

Langley said he wanted the stakeholder group to be “folks that are committed to furthering virtual education in Maine,” and would include representatives from several areas, including the state Department of Education, the Maine Charter School Commission, education advocates such as the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Principals Association and the Maine Education Association.

It could also include members from the homeschooling community, or from the national educational services providers such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore, the two companies providing the curriculum for the proposed virtual charter schools before the commission.

The proposal is intended to be available to all Maine students for free, including public, private, charter school students or homeschooled students.

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier, speaking to the committee later during a confirmation hearing, was asked if the department supported expanded digital learning as outlined in the Langley bill.

Rier said he did, although the department remains concerned about the potential cost and short time frame.

“The department is interested in supporting digital learning and expanding it,” he said. “It’s just one more step for students who may not have had access to those resources before.”

New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy served more than 9,000 students in grades 6 through 12 last year. The two states already have worked together on education; some New Hampshire students already cross the state line to attend Maine schools that are closer to their homes.

Source: Portland Press Herald

View more sources on Maine charter schools

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2014 by in Charter Schools, Maine, States.

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