In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to offer charter schools, implementing a top priority of Gov. Paul LePage. But the same push by the LePage administration that resulted in the passage of the charter school bill hasn’t yet ushered in virtual charter schools, whose students receive most or all of their education online.
That may be poised to change. On Thursday, the Maine House of Representatives voted to advance L.D. 1736, which calls for a study of a state-run online charter school and a yearlong freeze on virtual schools affiliated with for-profit companies. The full Legislature should endorse the measure, putting for-profit schools on hold and giving the state time to design a system that serves the needs of Maine students, not out-of-state corporations.
Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that operate independently of public school districts. Five bricks-and-mortar charter facilities have opened in Maine. Online charter education proposals, however, have stumbled because of school performance and governance issues at other schools affiliated with K12 Inc. and Connections Learning, companies that want to do business here.
The virtual school applications presented by K12 and Connections Learning have met with rejection twice from the Maine Charter School Commission. Then last month, the panel gave its initial approval, citing assurances from the companies that the schools’ local boards will hire and employ the schools’ administrators.
But instead of sending Maine taxpayers’ money to Herndon, Va. — home to K12 — or Baltimore — where Connections Learning is headquartered — the state should take advantage of resources closer to home.
About 50 Maine high schools already offer online classes, and a state-run academy would help coordinate course offerings, avoid duplication and ensure that students are taught by Maine-certified instructors. And in neighboring New Hampshire, the state-run Virtual Learning Academy mixes traditional learning with an online curriculum in the so-called “blended” approach. In fact, most of its students attend traditional New Hampshire public schools or are home-schooled, the Nashua Telegraph reported last year.
The Virtual Learning Academy could be a model for Maine. A similar school here could expand course offerings for poorer districts while controlling costs: The Maine School Boards Association has said that virtual charter schools would cost sending districts an average of $8,500 per student, while expenses would be lower if the state ran its own academy.
A “blended” school also could turn out better-educated students. A federal report has found that students tend to perform better in courses that combine elements of both the traditional and online approaches than in purely face-to-face classes.
Whether traditional, online or “blended,” charter schools are intended to provide more learning options for students who haven’t found all that they need in the public school system. The state of Maine is in a better position than a for-profit company to create a virtual charter school that delivers on this promise for all Maine students who need it.