The Maine Charter School Commission will vote Monday on three charter school applications, all of which have drawn criticism and generated controversy.
In addition to two applications from virtual charter schools – in which students learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and only limited face-to-face interactions with teachers and administrators – the commission will vote on an application from the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is being proposed by backers alleged to have ties to an imam at the center of recent political upheaval in Turkey. All three schools were rejected by the commission in previous applications.
Maine currently has five charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. The state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021.
Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Friday that the commission is considering whether to approve only one virtual school – or none at all. If it decides on that course, she said, the applications will be compared with one another, rather than the commission considering each school on its own merits.
“When you’re looking at two virtuals, it’s not easy,” Lapoint said. “I think they’ve been so controversial.”
Even as the charter commission weighs the applications, the Maine Legislature is considering several virtual charter school bills. One bill, passed by the House last week, would impose a moratorium on any virtual charter schools until 2015 while officials establish a plan to create a state-run virtual charter. Another bill would change how the state funds virtual schools.
The moratorium bill, L.D. 1736, now goes to the Senate, but faces a likely veto if it reaches Gov. Paul LePage, a strong supporter of charter schools. It’s questionable if there are enough votes to override a veto, since some early bipartisan support fell away during the House debate.
Supporters argue that charter schools offer students an alternative to local schools, and that virtual charters give students even more options.
Most virtual schools have local board members who get the charter to open and contract out most school services, such as curriculum, materials and teachers, to large national companies.
The Maine Charter School Commission aimed to offset that influence by requiring the Maine virtual charter school boards to directly employ the top school officials, generally considered to be the head of school and the chief financial officer.
Maine charter schools are required to be transparent, with budgets available to all taxpayers and all financial and budget discussions held in public school board meetings, with certain exceptions. However, critics note that traditional school board members are elected by the local community, while public charter school board members are not.
FOR-PROFIT COMPANIES RUN SCHOOLS
Maine is one of 30 states, along with the District of Columbia, that allow full-time virtual charter schools. Nationwide, there were 311 full-time virtual schools in 2011-12 with nearly 200,000 students.
The two Maine applicants, Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, have contracts with two of the largest for-profit operators: K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore.
Between them in 2011-12, K12 and Connections managed 69 charter schools and 17 district schools with more than 116,000 students, according to a survey released in November by the National Education Policy Center.
K12 operates schools in 26 states and Connections Education LLC, the parent company of Connections Learning, operates schools in 18 states. Connections Education is a subsidiary of Britain-based education products giant Pearson.
Last year the charter school commission created new requirements tailored to virtual schools. In addition to having the board employ top administrators, enrollment is capped at 750 students, and weekly face-to-face meetings between core teachers and students are required, although they can be done online via Skype.
School officials have told the commission that students would have at least one hour of “class” instruction a week for each course.
Maine’s rules “are the most restrictive (charter school) requirements of any state,” Lapoint said. She said the commission does regular inspections and follow-up with charter schools after they open.
“We have very, very solid oversight,” she said.
Before those new rules were established, a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections in 2012 showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of student achievement.
Some critics of virtual charter schools object to public education funds going to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders, not taxpayers.
K12’s chief executive officer, for example, earned $4.1 million in total compensation last year, with a base salary of $670,836, according to Forbes.
The director of the North America Education division at Pearson, which purchased Connections in 2011, earned $951,000 in total compensation last year, with a base salary of $658,000.
On its website, Connections Education notes that it has produced revenue growth of more than 30 percent in each of the past three years.
Meanwhile, Maine and many states have seen their education budgets shrink.
The Maine School Boards Association has estimated that virtual charter schools would cost districts that lose students to charters an average of $8,500 per student. With both virtual schools allowed to enroll up to 750 students each, the two schools could receive a potential $12.75 million a year in state per-pupil funds.
Legislation has been proposed to change the funding mechanism for virtual charter schools. L.D. 1617 suggests that they should not get the same per-pupil funding as other public schools because they don’t incur the same costs of heating and maintaining school buildings, and providing meals and day-to-day care of students.
PROPOSED LEWISTON-AUBURN SCHOOL
One of the most persistent issues with the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School is whether it, like many other U.S. charter schools led by Turkish educators, has ties to Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen.
The schools are often top performers and have a secular curriculum, but have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, hiring and financial practices.
Gulen, considered a moderate cleric, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and is at the heart of the current political upheaval in Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that a recent corruption and bribery scandal was orchestrated by an Islamic movement led by Gulen.
The Lewiston-Auburn academy board members have told the Maine charter commission that the school would not have any ties to Gulen, and that the only official “Gulen Schools” are private, not public. The public schools in the U.S., officials have said, may have backers who are “inspired” by Gulen but are not “affiliated” with him.
Followers of Gulen have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, “60 Minutes,” USA Today and other news organizations. News reports have focused on the number of instructors at the schools who come from Turkey, and on the financial relationships between the schools and vendors that are led or owned by people from Turkey.
Those issues have been raised at the Boston-area school that is the model for the Lewiston-Auburn school – Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett.
According to an editorial in The Boston Globe, Pioneer school officials deny any connection to Gulen, but the school has hired 16 Turkish science, math or technology teachers on temporary visas –although only four are currently on the school’s staff – and contracted with a law firm tied to the Gulen movement.
Maine charter commission members have questioned the academy board about those issues. The board denied ties to Gulen and said it planned to hire local teachers unless it could not find qualified candidates in the state.
Board member Tarlan Ahmadov, however, has been active in the Turkish Cultural Center of Maine, which is part of the Gulen network. The center has organized trips to Turkey for state legislators, teachers and other community figures, who meet Gulen-linked newspaper editors, politicians and civic leaders. The center also held a “Friendship Dinner” and awards ceremony in Portland last November, which included a film about the Gulen movement and its network of 800 schools around the globe, and a presentation of awards to Gov. Paul LePage and other lawmakers.
Ahmadov went on the trip to Turkey with legislators and presented an award to Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, at the Friendship Dinner.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: