AUBURN, Maine — Hoping to make money to help relieve property taxes, the Auburn School Department will try to become a University of Phoenix-style developer and marketer of online high school courses for foreign students.
The target market is China, Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill said Wednesday, just two weeks after unveiling the initiative to give all kindergartners an iPad 2.
The School Department has hired a lobbyist to help push through a bill allowing public schools to sell online high school courses to out-of-state and foreign students.
LD 938, which has been passed by the Legislature’s Education Committee, would allow public schools to sell online courses out of state and out of the country for an amount higher than what the courses cost, or for a profit.
If passed by the full Legislature and if successful, it’s believed that Auburn would be the first school department in Maine selling online courses to foreign students.
Those benefiting would be Auburn taxpayers.
“The idea is to pump some revenue back into the community to lower taxes and afford our students here the opportunity to network with students from foreign countries,” Morrill said. It’s too early to predict how much money the School Department could make, he said.
But before Auburn can start selling online courses, the School Department had to make sure it was legal.
Enter Portland attorney Richard Spencer, also the lawyer for former Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who has worked in China. (That’s just a coincidence, Spencer said.)
The Auburn School Department paid Spencer $7,558.
“It wasn’t for palling around in Augusta,” Spencer said. “Most of it was legal work rather than lobbying. I had to review the laws governing education, all of the regulations of the department. Then I had to meet with the department to see what they were willing to go along with.” After that he drafted the legislation.
In addition to making money for taxpayers, offering high school courses to foreign students “could in turn help broaden the education experience of our students, put them in contact with foreign students,” Morrill said. Those experiences could include student exchanges or Auburn students collaborating online with students in China and other countries.
China became an interest, Morrill said, because he and others know Mainers who work as educational administrators in China. “It’s amazing how small the world is.”
The idea came out of Auburn’s work, led by educator Mike Muir, in developing online courses for Auburn students, including those at risk of dropping out or who have medical conditions that don’t allow them to be in school.
The number of Auburn students taking online courses “is small. But courses online is certainly something that’s exploding,” Morrill said.
As Muir developed online courses, “people began talking that with the portable design, the courses could go anywhere.” Mainers in China have told Morrill the idea “looks hopeful,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t start until this was cleared up” with legislation.
Courses offered, from science to the humanities, would meet Maine requirements just as those courses taken by Maine students. Foreign students could take a full semester or multiple semesters, Morrill said.
Enrolling in high school courses from Auburn would be attractive to Chinese students interested in getting an American college education. Having a Maine high school diploma, or having taken some Maine courses, would help them get ready for an American college education, he said.
Spencer said there’s “tremendous interest among the Chinese in getting access to an American education.” China’s global economy is growing, and Chinese students want to be fluent in English so they can do business with the United States, Spencer said.
Foreign students attending private schools can be there for four years. Because of the high number of Chinese students, “Fryeburg Academy is building a new dorm.”
But immigration laws limit foreign students to one year at public schools, he said.
The town of Millinocket is recruiting tuition-paying Chinese students to attend Stearns High School, a school that’s suffered from dwindling student enrollments.
Auburn’s idea could help fill a gap for foreign students interested in attending Maine public schools, Spencer said.
LD 938 is sponsored by Rep. Michael Beaulieu, R-Auburn.
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