AUGUSTA, Maine — Responding to a “get it in gear” letter from Gov. Paul LePage, the newly formed Maine Charter School Commission voted Friday to respond by reminding the governor of the importance of its task and the need for due diligence.
The letter was drafted by commission Chairman James Banks, but members voted unanimously to add their names.
LePage had sent a letter to the commission sharply criticizing it for, in his view, delaying its work. In his press statement Monday, the governor said, “If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state’s expectations, I urge their resignation.”
The commission recently had voted to defer consideration of so-called virtual schools for a year. Two of the five organizations that have submitted complete applications to become charter schools are designed to be “virtual,” in that they do not plan on operating in buildings but rather in a Web-based format.
In its letter, the commission reminded the governor that legislation allowing charter schools — educational institutions that use state money but operate in ways traditional public schools cannot, such as targeting specific areas of studies — was only passed in September. The commission did not issue its first request for proposals until May 1.
The commission explained its decision not to act on the two virtual school applications, citing its need for “in-depth training” on the subject.
“You have repeatedly called for increased accountability in state government, and that is to your credit,” the letter to the governor stated. Many states “have regretted the impulse to charter some virtual schools, unaware that some have extraordinary high dropout rates with very low bars for academic progress.”
Celina Bernhardt of Bangor, along with her husband Dave, told commission members Friday that they ought to be more open-minded about virtual schools. Parents of a daughter at the William S. Cohen Middle School they described as struggling with a mild learning disability, the Bernhardts said virtual schools operate in 25 U.S. states and are a viable alternative for some students.
Their daughter is an “auditory learner,” Celina Bernhardt said, for whom the noise of a traditional classroom “is interfering with her ability to learn.”
“She has told me she hates school,” the mother said, and often comes home with headaches. “Maine needs to move into the 21st century,” she said. If problems with a virtual charter school emerge, the charter could be revoked, she argued.
But commission members held fast to their position.
“Faster could be a disaster,” commission member Shelly Reed said earlier in the meeting.
Member Richard Barnes agreed that “virtual education is not new territory,” and that he saw it used with good results while he was with the University of Maine. But he stressed that commission members “are the authorizers, not the operators,” and so had the responsibility to evaluate the applicants for their ability to succeed.
Chairman Banks noted that more traditional charter school applicants sought to serve 40 or so students, while a virtual school could end up with 500 students enrolled, so assessing its prospects for success was critical.
John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association, speaking at the close of the meeting, said he applauded the commission for its deliberative approach, and criticized the governor for “politicizing” the process.