EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — In the middle of the Linscotts’ home there is a makeshift classroom. From floor to ceiling, the room is filled with items Amy Linscott uses to home-school her two daughters, Raeney, 12, and Emma, 8. There is a chalkboard, a map of Egypt and a calendar on the wall, and art supplies, textbooks and notebooks crammed onto shelves and piled on desks.
The Linscotts hope to add something else to their at-home classroom: a laptop for Raeney with the capacity to connect her to Maine’s first virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy. Last week, the school became the sixth charter school to receive approval from the Maine Charter School Commission and is in the process of negotiating a contract with the commission so it can enroll students for the 2014-15 school year.
The push to bring a virtual charter school to Maine has been rife with tension. Opponents of the movement say virtual charter schools will siphon money away from already struggling public schools into the hands of out-of-state, for-profit corporations and contribute to declining student enrollments at brick-and-mortar schools across Maine.
Charter schools are funded by the hometowns of the students they enroll, according to the Maine Department of Education website. When a student chooses to attend, his or her town pays the charter school a tuition rate that is set by the state, instead of sending that money to the local school district.
Virtual charter schools are run by companies, such as Virginia-based K12 Inc. and Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which is owned by Pearson PLC, the publishing company that has its headquarters in London. Both K12 Inc. and Pearson are publicly traded. Their involvement with the schools ranges, but sometimes amounts to decisions about curriculum, textbooks and the hiring of teachers.
But to the families who have invested hundreds of hours completing the charter school application, testifying in Augusta and answering questions from the charter school commission to get a virtual school, the complaints about virtual charters do not outweigh the appeal of more choices for their kids, something Gov. Paul LePage has touted in his support for such schools.
“We’re allowed to choose what kind of money we want to spend to help our kids,” said Corina Dawbin, a West Gardiner resident who home-schools two of her three children. “I am paying tax dollars to help an education system that’s not assisting my kids’ needs. I should be able to have other options.”
Dawbin said she started home-schooling her oldest child because she had chronic asthma and frequently got very sick at school because of all the germs she was exposed to there.
“I wanted to make sure she got a good education regardless of her health,” she said.
Linscott’s children don’t have health problems, but she is not satisfied with the quality of the education offered at the local schools in East Millinocket.
“I live in a rural area and we don’t have a lot of the offerings that larger schools and larger towns have,” she said.
As her daughter gets older, it has become more difficult for Linscott to stay ahead of her academically. She wants Raeney to have teachers.
Other home-schooling parents are interested in the virtual charter school because of similar concerns.
“We’ve always been concerned with not being trained teachers,” said Eben Waugh of Dover-Foxcroft of himself and his wife, who home-school their daughters.
“The virtual schools, [by] having the teachers available, it would be, I think, a more consistent message,” he said. “My grasp of grammar and my wife’s are two different things.”
Under the proposed plan, Maine Connections Academy would enroll students in grades seven through 12. It would have a teacher for each subject whose students would have a live online lesson at least once a week. Multiple students might attend each class and be able to submit questions and chat with each other at certain times. They would then get homework, like in a traditional class.
The teachers, who Linscott said likely will all work together at one facility in southern Maine, would be available by phone, videoconference or email to speak with the students.
Students also would participate in lessons that did not involve teachers. They might have an animated character walking them through how to do a math problem, or a list of instructions for how to conduct a science experiment. After each of those lessons, the student would have to complete some sort of assessment so the teacher could keep track of the student’s progress through the course and know whether he or she grasped the concept.
However, a 2011 New York Times report that focused on K12 Inc. depicted a system that served the publicly traded company’s bottom line rather than its students.
“Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews,” the story said.
“Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work,” it said. “Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them.”
According to a 2012 report from the National Education Policy Center, K12 Inc. students scored 14 percent to 36 percent lower in math than students from brick-and-mortar schools in the states where K12 Inc. schools exist.
Linscott says a distinction should be made between K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. A K12 Inc. virtual charter called Maine Virtual Academy submitted an unsuccessful application this year.
“With K12, the governing board was buying all their services from K12,” said Shelley Reed, vice president of the Maine Charter School Commission. “K12 was hiring all the teachers. K12 would be hiring the head of school.”
The governing board at Maine Connections Academy would work with its parent company to hire teachers, but those board members would have the final say.
Parents interviewed for this article who are interested in a virtual charter school for their kids were not bothered by the fact that they would be contracting with a for-profit company.
“It is no different from the school purchasing their textbooks from Pearson,” said Linscott, though she allowed that the virtual charter will spend a higher portion of its revenue at Connections Academy.
“We can terminate our contract with them if we feel that they are not living up to our standards,” she said.