Backers of a virtual charter school rejected by Maine officials are hoping for a second chance this week.
The Maine Charter School Commission will decide Tuesday whether to consider an appeal from Maine Virtual Academy, which was narrowly rejected March 3. The commission voted 4-3 in favor of the school, but five votes are needed for approval.
One of the dissenting commissioners must agree to consider the appeal, and if that happens, the commission plans to immediately take up the question of whether to approve the charter.
That means the commission could approve Maine Virtual Academy to open this fall, which would make it the state’s second virtual charter school and the seventh charter school overall. The state has a 10-school cap on charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. Maine Virtual Academy is backed by local nonprofit Maine Learning Innovations, which intends to contract with Virginia-based K12 Inc. for school services.
A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12, the nation’s largest online education company, and Connections Education, the operator of the state’s current virtual charter school, 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.
Charter schools have become a partisan and controversial issue in Maine. They are strongly supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who enacted the charter school legislation, and those who argue that there should be a range of educational options for students who don’t necessarily “fit” at a traditional schools, from top athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied. Critics, which include the Maine Education Association and many Democratic legislators, say the schools chip away at scarce state funding for traditional public schools and have mixed or unproven educational results.
Virtual charter schools, where students connect to teachers through the Internet and learn largely from home, come under even sharper scrutiny.
The commission drew up a special virtual charter school application, designed to address issues raised by an online school run remotely by large national organizations. The commission instituted requirements to maintain local control because local school boards generally outsource their management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.
In the legislative session that just ended, LePage vetoed a bill that would have put a moratorium on virtual charter schools and directed officials to develop a state-run virtual charter academy. The veto was sustained by the state Senate. Another failed bill would have required legislative approval of a virtual charter school application.
During the initial review of Maine Virtual Academy, some members of the Maine commission raised concerns that K12 had inconsistent results in other states and couldn’t provide the commission with SAT and Advanced Placement test results for its students. Others were concerned that some local members of the academy’s board, which includes public officials such as Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, and Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills, were not as engaged as others, noting that several board members left some commission meetings early.
In two letters to the commission, Maine Learning Innovations board President Amy Carlisle said the commission’s denial March 3 was based on misunderstandings, errors or omissions from the application and interview process. Further, Carlisle said they are willing to change their approach to gain approval.
“We have remained open to modify our approach through charter contract requirements to meet the concerns of the commission,” Carlisle wrote.
She wrote that the board would be willing to make certain changes, such as having the board, rather than K12, directly hire teachers. The letter also said the commission didn’t correctly characterize the school operation in several areas, including testing, professional development and commitment of board members.
Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint has said she and two other members of a subcommittee that has been working closely with Carlisle throughout the process disagreed with some of Carlisle’s points.
In a written report, Lapoint noted that the applicant didn’t amend its application to reflect changes to hiring or the board’s composition. However, she said the applicant’s new information could change commissioners’ minds and should be considered.
Lapoint said she and the other members of the subcommittee, John Bird and Ande Smith, will make the presentation to the board, not the applicants. The three commissioners, along with Commissioner Laurie Pendleton, previously voted to approve the virtual school’s application.
In the original 4-3 vote, commissioners Shelley Reed, Heidi Sampson and J. Michael Wilhelm voted against the application. Sampson has since resigned. Under commission rules, either Wilhelm or Reed must agree to reconsider the application to reopen the process.
As of last week, Reed declined to say whether she planned to reconsider the application, and Wilhelm did not respond to requests for an interview.
The commission had planned to consider the appeal in April, but delayed it because Wilhelm was absent and Reed requested time to consider the request.
If the full commission does take up a vote on whether to grant a charter to Maine Virtual Academy, it will still need five votes for approval. Although Sampson resigned, her seat has been filled by former Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Hampden.
In 2013, K12 settled a federal class-action lawsuit in which some claims, including those alleging K12 made false statements about student results, were dismissed for lack of merit, while other allegations, that K12 boosted enrollment and revenues through “deceptive recruiting” practices, were dismissed as part of a $6.75 million settlement to the shareholders.
In April, the NCAA announced that it will no longer accept coursework from 24 schools operated by K12, saying the courses were out of compliance with the NCAA’s nontraditional course requirements. K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski noted in a blog that the NCAA rules require that students and teachers have “ongoing access to one another,” and he criticized the decision and rules.
“These vague standards and unclear review process leave schools to only guess what passes NCAA’s eligibility test. This is a significant concern for all schools and districts that use digital learning programs,” he wrote.
Only a small fraction of Maine graduates go on to play NCAA sports.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: