CONTRIBUTORS

Maine shouldn’t reduce opportunities for all students to provide virtual learning for a few

Posted March 03, 2014, at 2:25 p.m.
 Maria Vespa eats a mac and cheese lunch while working on her geography test at home, in Duluth, Minn., in 2009. Vespa and her sister Anna both attend a &quotvirtual school" where they take all their classes online.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune
Maria Vespa eats a mac and cheese lunch while working on her geography test at home, in Duluth, Minn., in 2009. Vespa and her sister Anna both attend a "virtual school" where they take all their classes online.

Former Superintendent Rich Abramson’s points regarding the benefits of online learning opportunities for Maine students in his Feb. 26 BDN OpEd were right on the mark. Distance learning must be a tool in the educational toolbox of all Maine communities.

Like Abramson, I too am a retired superintendent of schools in Maine, and I struggled with the same issues that he eloquently pointed out in his article. Where we have differing opinions, however, is the oversight, delivery and funding of these virtual classes.

Every public school system in Maine is uniquely equipped and positioned to oversee and administer online courses as part of its mix of academic offerings. There is no particular need for us to place all of our virtual education dollars in one or two baskets through “charter schools” without walls.

Article VIII of the Maine Constitution charges the Legislature with making certain the towns provide for the education of their youth. Having students and families from our towns directly access online courses is not a new concept. Some home schoolers have been doing it for years, and they have the option and right to select from any number of online educational providers.

What is unique about virtual charter schools in Maine, such as one approved Monday by the Maine Charter School Commission, is that they would take tax dollars away from local residents while providing no opportunity for those footing the bill to have any oversight like they do with a locally elected school board. Contracted services of all types make up a sizable cost in the education world and remain, for the most part, out of direct view of the public.

Even with a slightly smaller student population, local school systems are still on the hook for all of the same services and expenses. If a student’s online experience did not work out well, his or her local school system will be expected, and required, to have a seat and staffing in place for him when he returns.

We have seen on a small scale the results of peeling public dollars away to fund charter schools in the Skowhegan region and Regional School Unit 54. The effect there has been a combination of reduced programming and services and increased taxes for all in order to benefit a relative few.

Now imagine that playing out statewide in an online format, and hang onto your wallet. Rupert Murdoch has stated that education is a $500 billion industry in our country annually. Hundreds of companies are lined up to offer solutions while lining their pocketbooks. At the same time, Kahn Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Coursera and many other entities offer courses for free.

Legislation has been proposed to hold off on approval of any virtual charters in Maine. We would be wise Yankees to distribute our virtual learning dollars to the towns for the purpose of providing distance learning opportunities to all with local oversight.

Let’s not reduce opportunities for many in an attempt to provide them for a few. Maine is a global leader in the use of educational technology; let’s get this right.

Paul Stearns of Guilford is a retired school superintendent of School Administrative District 4, a past president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and a Republican candidate for House District 119.

 

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