It’s all but certain that the state’s first virtual charter school will start operating this fall. Last Monday, Maine Connections Academy received the unanimous approval of the Maine Charter School Commission, and a proposed moratorium on virtual schools was vetoed three days later by Gov. Paul LePage.
Maine Connections Academy board members say there’s a lot of demand for online education, and they present the school as a much-needed option for students who feel out of place in traditional learning environments.
But significant questions about online schools’ performance, governance and funding remain, and the state charter school panel should watch closely to ensure that Maine Connections Academy lives up to its contract. State standards don’t mean anything if they aren’t enforced, and when a school doesn’t do its job, students pay the costs for years to come.
Maine Connections Academy has been trying for several years to start a school in Maine. It was rejected previously because of the Maine Charter School Commission’s concerns about the relationship between the school’s Maine board and its for-profit parent company, Baltimore-based Connections Learning. What made the difference this time, according to the state panel, is that the school fulfilled rigorous new requirements specific to charter programs and presented credible evidence that its board would be hands-on and independent of Connections Learning.
Weathering the application process is one thing, but living up to state criteria is another, and there’s reason for skepticism regarding the degree of separation between Maine Connections Academy and Connections Learning.
The parent company was calling the shots in 2012, in connection with the withdrawal of Maine Connections Academy’s first application to start a school, a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation showed. And a public hearing last month revealed that Connections Learning has considerable input into another key decision: the hiring of the top school official at Maine Connections Academy. Connections Learning will do the initial review of all applicants for principal and then give the Maine Connections Academy board its top choices for the board to make the final pick.
Connections Learning will have a lot of say in the operation of the Maine school, given that it also provides materials and curriculum.
Another big question is funding. Per-pupil revenue for Maine charter schools flows from the district where the student lives. A virtual school presumably would have lower costs than brick-and-mortar schools — about 24 percent lower, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States — because it doesn’t have to pay for facilities, maintenance or student transportation. But although a proposal to adjust the mechanism for funding virtual schools is before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, it’s unclear whether the measure will advance or be rejected, like a 2013 bill to change the entire charter school funding formula.
And while virtual schools are booming, enrolling an estimated 243,000 students across the country, there’s still no evidence that they do a better job at educating students, according to a new National Education Policy Center report.
In fact, in 2012-2013, 30 percent of the nation’s 338 full-time K-12 virtual schools received no state accountability or performance ratings. Of those that were rated, just 34 percent had “academically acceptable ratings” on widely used accountability measures. On one of these metrics — the federally mandated adequate yearly progress goals — virtual charter schools lagged brick-and-mortar charter and traditional public schools by 22 percentage points.
In the same study, just 157 full-time virtual charter schools reported their on-time graduation rate. It was about 44 percent, far behind the national average of about 79 percent for traditional public schools.
The future of the Maine Connections Academy doesn’t have to be bleak. Regarding accountability and performance, online schools have an advantage over brick-and-mortar ones in that “electronic data is readily available and easily portable in most areas of measurement and reporting,” the conservative Fordham Institute said.
What’s more, the contract between the Maine Connections Academy and Connections Learning allows the Maine board to terminate the agreement at its discretion with “reasonable notice.” The Maine Charter School Commission mandated this provision, and its involvement and close scrutiny will make the difference between for-profit virtual charter schools that benefit their parent company and for-profit virtual charter schools that benefit all of their students in Maine.