AUGUSTA – The state Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would temporarily freeze the approval of publicly financed virtual charter schools.

The Senate voted 22-13 to enact a moratorium on virtual schools amid concerns about the effectiveness of institutions through which students receive most or all of their education in online classes. Similar legislation has been considered in other states, which have been beset by concerns about the oversight and operation of such schools by for-profit corporations.

The Illinois Legislature recently enacted a similar moratorium on virtual schools.

Two Republicans, Sen. Patrick Flood, of Winthrop, and Sen. Thomas Saviello, of Wilton, voted with the Democratic majority Tuesday, as did Yarmouth independent Sen. Richard Woodbury. The vote margin is two votes shy of the 24 votes needed to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

The governor has not taken a position on the bill, but has been an advocate of virtual schools. An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram found that the LePage administration had leaned on virtual school companies to influence policy initiatives.

Most Senate Republicans objected to the Maine proposal, arguing that the Maine Charter School Commission is already thoroughly vetting applicants. Republicans said the bill, L.D. 995, would effectively halt much needed educational reforms.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said Tuesday that the bill was unnecessary. He noted that the charter commission had already denied two applications for charter schools amid concerns about their business and education models.

“This is micromanaging,” Langley said. “Let’s let them do their jobs.”

Democrats countered that the state should take extra care before approving virtual schools funded by taxpayers.

“We have to get this right,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, the Democratic majority leader.

The mostly party-line vote the bill reflects the growing political divide over education, particularly charter schools, which in Maine receive a slice of public education funding.

The measure, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would prohibit creation of both full-time and for-profit virtual charter schools until the Maine Charter School Commission can draft and report out “best practices” for the schools.

Alfond, who has previously supported digital learning initiatives, told lawmakers in April that there was mounting evidence that virtual charter schools underperform. He cited a study by the National Education Policy Center at Western Michigan University which found that one in three K12 Inc. schools reported making adequate yearly progress in 2010.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has said the proposals are designed to halt the development of virtual schools. K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning of Baltimore were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published on Sept. 2, 2012, that showed how they were shaping Maine’s digital education policies and that their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

K12 has been at the center of controversies in other states, including Colorado, Tennessee and Florida. Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among a host of states that have considered enacting moratoriums on virtual charter schools.

In January the charter school commission rejected virtual charter school applications proposed by K12 Inc. and Connections Learning.

The day after the charter commission decisions, LePage held a pair of news conferences during which he said charter commission members were intimidated by advocates for public schools. He also called for the resignation of charter commission members who were afraid to do their jobs.

L.D. 995 will head to the House for additional votes.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
[email protected]Twitter: @stevemistler

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