Virtual charter schools have proven an especially contentious flashpoint in Maine’s charter school debate over the past three years. The controversy has erupted even though none of the five charter schools currently open in Maine is a virtual school providing most of its instruction online.
If the state’s limited history with virtual charter schools should teach state lawmakers anything, though, it’s that they should trust the charter school approval process they set up nearly three years ago. That’s why lawmakers should be wary of two bills pending this winter that propose significant law changes directed squarely at virtual charter schools.
One bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth, would impose a moratorium on the approval of any virtual charter school until Aug. 1, 2016 — when a state-run virtual academy established under the bill would start operating.
A second bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, proposes a slew of new approval and performance requirements and a new funding model specifically for virtual charter schools.
The bills are well-intentioned and offer helpful ideas, and there’s a legitimate debate to be had about virtual learning. We’re concerned, however, that lawmakers are tackling a problem before it exists and before a charter school approval process that has proven itself rigorous has had a chance to work.
Since 2012, the Maine Charter School Commission has twice received applications from two organizations seeking to operate virtual academies that would contract with national, for-profit corporations to provide most instructional services and content.
The commission appropriately delayed action on the applications in 2012, and its members received needed training before evaluating the applications. The commission later rejected them, expressing concerns about the schools’ proposed governance structures.
The commission refined its process and requirements for the second round of applications, learning from the first go-around. The conditions limited virtual schools’ enrollment; restricted them to serving students in grades 7-12; included a requirement that the schools have plans for weekly, in-person contact with students and set out clear rules to assure the independence of the virtual school’s local governing board from any organization that supplies instructional content.
We question whether the moratorium proposed in Langley’s bill is prudent — especially as the Maine Charter School Commission considers applications for three new charter schools, two of them virtual. The virtual charter school applications cleared an initial vote Thursday, so imposing a moratorium before their final approval — essentially changing the rules midstream — would be unfair to the applicants.
MacDonald’s bill suggests some requirements and provisions that Maine’s three-year-old charter school law is already designed to address. For example, the bill proposes an annual independent audit requirement for virtual charter schools, something that already exists in the state’s charter school law. It also proposes an initial three-year probationary status for the virtual school. The charter school law, meanwhile, allows a charter school to operate initially for a five-year term, and it provides for a charter school to shut down if it doesn’t live up to the terms of its operating contract.
To his credit, MacDonald says he plans to remove the most problematic parts of his bill — provisions that would require the Legislature to approve any virtual charter school before it can operate and allow the Legislature to close one down for just cause.
The most helpful part of MacDonald’s bill directs the Department of Education to devise a new funding model for virtual charter schools to account for a virtual school’s presumably lower facilities and transportation costs. While that adjustment should be made, the entire charter school funding mechanism — by which schools bill the districts from which students originate — needs major revision in the form of a proposal lawmakers rejected last year.
As the debate continues about the proper role of virtual learning and virtual charter schools in Maine, critics have raised legitimate concerns about virtual charter schools — about their academic track record and about the practices of some of their for-profit providers of instructional content.
The debate, however, won’t be settled through pre-emptive, onerous legislative requirements. It would be better settled through a charter school approval and oversight process that’s designed to reward top-performing schools and see to it that underperformers shut down.