AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Charter School Commission, armed with a new executive director hired last month, has five new proposals to consider following a deadline for filing applications on Wednesday, including two virtual schools where students will take classes primarily over the Internet.
The five proposals are from Harpswell Coastal Academy in Harpswell, the Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, Maine Connections Academy, Maine Virtual Academy and Queen City Academy in Bangor.
The virtual schools, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, withdrew their applications earlier this year after members of the commission said they felt unprepared to rule on their proposals because of the unique nature of the schools and questions that arose about virtual schools’ effectiveness in other states.
In recent months, members of the commission have received training about virtual schools and the two delayed applications have been resubmitted. The commission, according to a new law passed by the Legislature in 2011, can approve up to 10 new charter schools by 2021, including virtual schools.
“The charter school law is very clear that virtual schools are an option, and the law specifies conditions for those schools,” said Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission. “We are not going to shy away from them. We are going to give them a rigorous review, same as with all of our applicants. We enter this process with open minds. It will be the responsibility of all of our applicants — virtual and brick-and-mortar — to convince us they are prepared and qualified to educate our students.”
Meanwhile, Democrats who opposed charter schools in the Legislature continue to voice their dissatisfaction. In a press release last month, the Maine Democratic Party said charter schools divert taxpayer revenues from traditional public schools and that some out-of-state companies stand to profit from creating virtual charter schools in Maine. A key part of the charter school law is that if a student opts to attend one, his or her sending school must turn over that student’s share of state funding.
In addition to the five new proposals, the commission has two applications left over from the first round, which are scheduled to be decided on later this year. On Tuesday, the commission is expected to vote on a proposal by the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science. The commission expects to decide on an application from the Fiddlehead Arts and Science School later this year.
Two applications have been approved for schools to open as of Oct. 1 of this year. They are the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School in Cornville, both of which opened last month.
“We are very pleased to receive new applications which will provide future public school choices for students,” said Lapoint. “This is exactly what public charter schools were supposed to do, give all students — not just those who can afford expensive private schools — additional choices. Our role is to review these proposals carefully to ensure they are viable and quality options for students.”
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in a statement Wednesday that the charter school law is not so much an “indictment” of traditional schools, but rather a way to provide more options for more students.
“It reflects a growing understanding among Mainers that no one school can be all things to all students,” said Bowen. “And that it is our responsibility to help families find the right educational environment for their children. As Gov. LePage has said, the wealthy have always had choices; it is our responsibility to ensure that choosing the best choice is not solely the privilege of the privileged.”
The five new applications propose that their charter schools open in the fall of 2013. Bob Kautz, a retired superintendent from the Sanford and Wells areas who has volunteered as a consultant for the commission in recent months, has been hired as the commission’s 20-hour-a-week executive director. Kautz, who is also a past interim executive director for the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, said the commission has hired Deanne Lavallee, a former employee of the Maine School Management Association, as a part-time administrative assistant.
Kautz said that by statute, the commission must rule on the five new applications by Feb. 1, 2013. In addition to reviewing those applications, Kautz said the commission is focused on developing processes to monitor whether approved charter schools meet educational and financial benchmarks.