AUGUSTA, Maine — Virtual charter schools were caught in a tug of war Friday between legislative proposals that would make them impossible in Maine to one bill that would put state government at the forefront of opening and then running them.

No virtual public charter schools currently exist in Maine, though there are private ones available and some schools offer virtual courses to supplement normal classrooms. However, virtual charter schools, in which students learn primarily through online classes, are likely in Maine’s future in one form or another since a law was passed by the Legislature two years ago that allows them.

Despite the passage of that law, the debate over charter schools has not ended and much of it recently has been centered around virtual schools.That debate continued for about five hours Friday afternoon in the Education Committee.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, introduced a bill that would allow charter schools, including virtual ones, to apply to the Department of Education for exemptions from certain requirements. There was urgent opposition to the bill in its original form, including from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities.

“MADSEC does not believe that any public school should be allowed a waiver of civil rights or health and safety requirements no matter what the reason,” said Jill Abrams, the group’s executive director.

Mason presented an amendment Friday that would essentially replace his original bill and not allow charter schools any exemptions from civil rights, health and safety, student assessment and accountability, conflicts of interest, public records and criminal history background checks.

“Upon further reflection, I have concluded that these requirements are too vital to be weakened in any way,” said Mason. “Thus, the amended bill will not permit waivers from these requirements to be sought.”

Another bill, LD 671, An Act to Protect Charter Schools by Requiring Them to be Operated as Nonprofit Organizations, seeks to pull corporate interests out of the creation of schools in Maine, according to bill sponsor Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick.

“Profit motives should not determine Maine students’ education opportunities,” said Daughtry to the committee. “These schools should fit the needs of Maine students and not be driven by monetary gain.”

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, proposed authorizing the state to create a virtual charter school.

“The challenge for this committee is not whether to bring virtual education to Maine, but rather to find the right way to bring virtual education to Maine,” said Cain. “it will be tempting to just look at the large, for-profit companies that offer turn-key models for virtual education. I am challenging you to think bigger and better for Maine.”

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the Education Committee’s House chairman, has submitted a wide-ranging bill. LD 481, An Act to Amend the Laws Governing Virtual Public Charter Schools, is one of the proposals charter school proponents say would make virtual schools unfeasible in Maine. Among other measures, it would mandate that only 20 percent of the per-pupil allocation would follow a student from his or her traditional school to the virtual charter school. Currently, nearly 100 percent of that funding follows the student.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted two bills to the Education Committee on Friday . LD 995, An Act to Establish a Moratorium on the Approval and Operation of Virtual Public Charter Schools, would bar the Maine Charter School Commission from approving any virtual charter schools until lawmakers pass legislation that specifically allows them. Alfond’s bill calls on the Charter School Commission to develop recommendations for a suitable laws and report back to legislators prior to the end of this year.

Alfond has also sponsored LD 1128, An Act to Provide for Greater Public Input and Local Control in the Chartering of Public Schools, which would force charter school organizations to hold extensive public hearings and a referendum vote in communities near a proposed charter school before that charter school is proposed.

“As we move forward on implementing charter schools in Maine, it is critical that any future applicant engage a host community and the affected school districts every step of the way,” said Alfond.

Amy Carlisle, president of Maine Learning Innovations, which is working on creating a virtual charter school in Maine, pleaded with the committee to let the schools develop. She said there are students all across Maine who could benefit from a virtual school.

“I urge the committee not to legislatively limit the potential for Maine to have a virtual learning environment for students who need them,” said Carlisle. “Please do not restrict the options for the small number of Maine students who need an alternative learning environment.”

Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, agreed.

“[Virtual schools] are a public school option that should remain open for the public,” he said. “To close the door now would be a disservice to Maine families.”

No work session has yet been scheduled for any of the bills.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.