Proposals for two virtual charter schools, including one whose operator was investigated in Florida, were given initial approval Thursday by the Maine Charter School Commission.

In previous years, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy were rejected in the early round of votes by the commission, in part because of concerns that they would not be sufficiently independent from the large national companies that provide the curriculum and largely manage the schools.

The commission will take a final vote in March on Maine’s newest charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.

Commission members said the virtual schools won approval this time because they assured commissioners that their local boards would be independent from their parent companies.

“We see they’re responding to our concerns and the boards have a more hands-on approach,” said Vice Chairwoman Shelley Reed, who in the past voted against the applications. “For me, that was a really big piece.”

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said, “Now we know we’ve got to dig deeper.”

Maine Virtual Academy would be operated by K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation’s largest online education company. The company was investigated by Florida’s education department, which found that K12 had employed teachers in Seminole County schools to teach subjects for which they lacked proper certification. The company also has come under scrutiny in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.

K12 Inc. and Connections Learning of Baltimore, which backs Maine Connections Academy, were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegraminvestigation in 2012 that showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.

Ande Smith, a Charter School Commission member who led a subcommittee looking at Maine Connections Academy, said commissioners still have significant concerns but are willing to continue negotiations.

“We are really excited to go forward,” said Amy Carlisle, board president for Maine Virtual Academy.

The commission also voted to continue negotiations with the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is affiliated with a network of 800 schools operated by followers of a Turkish imam.

Commissioners unanimously rejected the Many Hands Montessori School in Windham, saying the school’s backers were not prepared to expand a small private operation into a larger public school.

NEW VIRTUAL SCHOOL SCREENING

In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools. As many as 10 schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years, and five have already opened.

To address concerns about the virtual schools’ independence, the Charter School Commission created new requirements and a new application last year just for virtual charter schools. Those elements, and an additional meeting in which the commission met with applicants to discuss concerns, helped push the applications forward, said Lapoint.

In particular, previous applications called for the schools’ top officials to be employees of the national companies. The most recent applications call for the school boards to hire and employ the administrators.

The virtual charter schools still face one hurdle that’s beyond the commission’s control: proposed legislation asking state education officials to consider setting up a state-run virtual charter school. The bill would impose a moratorium on all virtual charter schools in Maine.

A public hearing on the bill, submitted by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, will be held Tuesday before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Gov. Paul LePage has been a strong supporter of charter schools. On Thursday, acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said he does not support a moratorium on virtual charter schools and is glad that the commission is moving forward on the charter school applications.

HEAVY SCRUTINY STILL AHEAD

John Bird, the commission member who led the subcommittee looking at Maine Virtual Academy, said the group was satisfied about the independence of the local board but concerned that the school didn’t have an identified chief executive officer, that it would be decentralized, and that some teachers may come from out of state.

“It’s our job as a commission to probe as deeply as we can to make sure all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, and that’s not easy,” said Bird, noting that each application is about 600 pages. “We do have significant concerns.”

Commissioner Smith said that because of the virtual charter school model, the schools’ success would be closely tied to the abilities of the CEOs, who would be the day-to-day leaders and report to the local boards.

“My belief is that the board gets that,” Smith said. “They know that, for them to do their job, to be independent, they know that person has to be totally awesome.”

He noted some areas in the applications as weaknesses, including whether the school could attract and retain high-quality teachers at the proposed salaries, find excellent local administrators and provide adequate special-education services.

All three applicants will face three-hour in-person interviews with the commission next week, followed by public hearings. Maine Connections Academy is scheduled for Monday, Maine Virtual Academy is scheduled for Tuesday, and Lewiston-Auburn Academy is scheduled for Friday.

A HISTORY OF DEFICIENCIES

The Maine Sunday Telegram investigation established that K12 Inc. provided the impetus for the formation of Maine Virtual Academy, seeking out potential board members. K12 and Connections Learning were both shown to be making key decisions instead of the boards, including withdrawing their applications from consideration by the Charter School Commission in 2012.

Smith and other commission members noted Thursday that they pressed both virtual charter school applicants on those points and insisted that the local boards be able to operate without influence from the companies.

“This particular board (with Maine Connections Academy) answered all the questions with detail and a real depth and grasp for what they’d be delivering,” Smith said.

Virtual charter schools run by the two companies elsewhere in the country regularly underperform on various standard school evaluation measures, the Telegram investigation showed.

K12 Inc. schools have since been subject to scrutiny in other states, with Colorado officials expressing concern about the lack of independence of the local board of the Colorado Virtual Academy, and Florida investigators finding that K12 employed teachers who lacked certification in the subjects they were teaching at a virtual school.

The commission members raised the certification issue with the applicants during the interviews, noting that lack of certification could lead to a school’s closure, under state law. Board members of Maine Virtual Academy said the situation wouldn’t arise in Maine because they are using a different teaching pool from K12 than the one affiliated with the Florida investigation. Beyond that, they said, the certification issue has been fixed.

THIRD SCHOOL HAS TIES TO TURKEY

The Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School is affiliated with followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, but commission members said they were satisfied that there would be no religious component to the school.

Commission member Reed said commissioners visited the group’s school in Massachusetts, where the students and staff assured them that religion is not part of instruction or the school. The group’s application for a charter school in Bangor was denied in early 2013.

Commissioner Heidi Sampson voted against the Lewiston-Auburn proposal after raising questions about possible religious influence and whether the school would hire teachers in Maine, as opposed to bringing in teachers from Turkey.

School board members told the commission they intend to hire local teachers and would hire outside teachers only if they could not find qualified candidates in the state.

Gulen’s network has been active in Maine, sponsoring trips to Turkey for state legislators, teachers and other community figures, who meet Gulen-linked newspaper editors, politicians and civic leaders. The trips are organized through the Turkish Cultural Center of Maine, which held an awards ceremony in Portland in November honoring LePage.

Several of the proposed school’s non-Turkish board members have participated in recent Gulen-sponsored trips to Turkey, as have prominent supporters Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade.

The proposed Lewiston-Auburn school is modeled on a Gulen-linked charter school in Massachusetts. A story last year in the Portland Press Herald found the schools are secular and generally well regarded, but often try to conceal their links to Gulen.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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