The Maine Charter School Commission refused on Tuesday to reconsider its narrow rejection of a proposed virtual charter school, leaving Maine with just one approved online school for at least another year.
The commission denied Maine Virtual Academy’s request because some information the commission had requested was submitted after the application deadline and because one commissioner felt it was inappropriate that academy officials had contacted commissioners directly to appeal the rejection.
The new information submitted after the application deadline should not be included with this year’s application, the commission’s legal counsel said.
“Our attorney’s view is that under the current process, the time to do that would be in a subsequent application cycle,” said Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint.
Also, the appeal was emailed to all commission members, in violation of rules that prohibit an applicant from having direct contact with commissioners, said commission member Shelley Reed. Applicants are supposed to correspond with only the commission’s executive director. Reed said this appeared to be an effort to “circumvent” commission rules.
Commission members Reed and Michael Wilhelm, who voted against the application the first time, said they didn’t want to consider the appeal. For the commission to reconsider its decision, one of them had to agree to it.
Maine Virtual Academy board member Peter Mills said the school will apply again next year.
“It’s fine,” Mills said after the meeting. “I think there is tremendous interest.”
The commission rejected the initial application from Maine Virtual Academy on March 3. The commission voted 4-3 in favor of the school, but five votes are needed for approval.
The state has a 10-school cap on charter schools over the 10 years beginning in 2011. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately owned, and operate independently of public school districts. The school board of Maine Virtual Academy 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 analyses of student achievement.
Charter schools have become a partisan and controversial issue in Maine. They are strongly supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who supported 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 school, from top athletes who spend a lot of time 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, have come under even sharper scrutiny. Gov. LePage this year vetoed legislation that would have placed a moratorium on new virtual charter schools in Maine.
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 – including public officials such as Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, and Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority – were not as engaged in the process as others.
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. Carlisle said the academy board was willing to change their approach to gain approval.
CONTRACT SET FOR APPROVED SCHOOL
Also Tuesday, the commission finalized its contract with Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, which was approved March 3.
Monday was also the schools self-imposed deadline for students to apply. As of Friday, about 75 students had applied, according to school board Chairwoman Amy Volk, a Republican state representative from Scarborough.
That’s far short of the enrollment target set by the commission of 270 students in grades 7-9 for the school initial year.
During the application process, Maine Connections officials said they had more than 3,000 parents inquire about the online academy, indicating high demand. They planned to enroll as many as 750 students in grades 7 through 12 throughout the state, but the commission set up smaller enrollment benchmarks for the initial years of operation as part of its decision to approve the school.
As with other charter schools, the commission allows a school to be within 10 percent of a target enrollment.
If actual enrollment falls outside of that range, it is considered a “material change” to the contract and school officials must report back to the commission to discuss enrollment and get new approval for a different enrollment level.
Lapoint said the commission would give the school until June 1 to hit the enrollment target.
All of Maine’s charter schools have seen demand increase after opening. All of the existing charters had waiting lists and had to hold lotteries for the fall enrollment, Lapoint said.
Volk said some families are waiting until the end of the school year to enroll.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: