Not every student can effectively learn at home, using a computer as a classroom. That’s apparently true even for students who have chosen to enroll in an online charter school.

The Maine Virtual Academy has found that out. It announced late last year that 25 percent of the students signed up on the first day of school dropped out in the school’s first 90 days of operation, a dropout rate that would put the school at the bottom of the list if it were a brick-and-mortar high school.

Charter school critics were quick to jump on the statistics and say that they prove that there is no place in Maine for this kind of education, but they are wrong. The numbers show only that this kind of school is not for everyone and that what’s right for one group of students won’t work for another.

Which is true of charter schools in general. After 25 years on the national scene, they have not revolutionized education. The schools can provide good alternatives for some families in some circumstances, but they don’t provide an alternative way to organize public education on a broad scale. The vast majority of students are educated in traditional public schools, and that is where attention and resources should be focused.

Maine was the 41st state to permit charter schools and currently has seven charters, including two online-only schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the direct control of school districts. They have more autonomy than traditional public schools, and students apply for admission instead of being assigned to attend.

So far, Maine’s experiment with charter schools has not borne out either the wildly optimistic dreams of supporters or the dire predictions of critics.


Charter schools have not bankrupted local schools, even though tuitions did initionally put pressure on the home districts of charter school students. But the law was amended to cover the costs out of the state budget, so the impact on sending districts is slight.

The Maine Charter School Commission has not been a rubber stamp for new applicants, as some had feared. It screens applications carefully, regularly sending them back to the drawing board before their schools can accept students. State law permits chartering of up to 10 schools by 2020, and it is hard to imagine that three more schools over the next four years would have a major impact, positive or negative, on the way education is delivered in the state.

Which is not to say that these schools can’t have a huge impact on individual students. Just as with virtual academies, big public high schools are not for everyone. There are students who don’t fit in academically, who need either a faster or slower pace of learning, or who just need to be in a smaller, less complicated social environment. There are students who do their best when they focus on one aspect of the curriculum, like science or the arts.

But that does not take away from the fact that most students go to traditional public schools overseen by local school boards, and setting those institutions up for success is what will make a difference in education in Maine. Making sure that those schools have good teachers and healthy students who are ready to learn will have more profound effects on people’s lives than all the charter schools put together.

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