Democrats push bill to stall virtual charter schools in Maine

Posted May 13, 2013, at 6:33 p.m.
Last modified May 14, 2013, at 8:13 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine would impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools and require that all charter schools function as nonprofit organizations if three measures endorsed Monday by the Legislature’s Education Committee become law.

The committee voted 8-4 along party lines, with Democrats in the majority, to recommend passage of three bills that Democrats said would keep the profit motive out of public education.

Virtual charter schools, in which students study nearly exclusively online, do not yet exist in Maine, although a law passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 allows them. While supporters view virtual schools as a cost-effective option that could work best for some students, others see them as too far afield from traditional schools where students and teacher interact in person.

Monday’s votes illustrate the wide rift on education policy between legislative Democrats and Gov. Paul LePage, who has made charter schools a cornerstone for his education reform agenda. The governor, who last week unveiled legislation that would lift the 10-school cap on public charter schools in Maine, advocates for charter schools as choices for families seeking to better meet the needs of students who struggle in traditional public schools. Democrats argue that they siphon limited funding away from public schools, creating an environment in which problems caused by underfunding of public schools become the rationale to expand charter schools in Maine.

“I do believe that virtual learning has a role in our state. I have a lot more concern when it comes to virtual public full-time charter schools,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who co-chairs the Education Committee. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable removing the child completely from the public school environment. … I really would appreciate hitting the pause button.”

Millett’s comments came Monday during a work session on LD 995, An Act to Establish a Moratorium on the Approval and Operation of Virtual and Public Charter Schools, which was sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. The bill would bar the Maine Charter School Commission from authorizing any virtual charter school until the Legislature enacts a virtual charter school law separate from the existing charter school law. Alfond also proposes in the bill that virtual charter schools would be part-time only and only for high school students.

Republicans, who in general support Maine’s charter school movement, opposed Alfond’s bill.

“I have a lot of confidence in our charter school commission, and I’m not prepared to ask for a moratorium at this point,” said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, who voted in the minority Monday.

A related bill, LD 481, An Act to Amend the Laws Governing Virtual Public Charter Schools, sponsored by Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the House chairman of the Education Committee, also received a party-line “ought to pass” recommendation. Originally wide-ranging, the bill was essentially gutted except for two provisions: that all part-time and full-time virtual charter school teachers must hold a valid teacher certification or acquire one within three years and that the Department of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission will determine what it cost to run a virtual charter school. MacDonald is seeking to place a limit on that number because he said online schools shouldn’t cost as much as brick-and-mortar schools to run.

During public hearings on April 12, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen testified against the bills.

“These bills are designed to stop the development of virtual charter schools …, by subjecting them to onerous regulations, and by prohibiting full-time online schooling and prohibiting elementary and middle school virtual education,” he said.

A third bill, LD 671, An Act to Protect Charter Schools by Requiring Them to be Operated as Nonprofit Organizations, was sponsored by Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick. It would require that public charter schools and virtual public charter schools be operated as nonprofit organizations

Millett said she doesn’t believe for-profit companies “have a role to play in the way education is delivered to our kids,” but her Republican colleagues on the committee disagreed. Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said there are hundreds of contracts between government agencies and for-profit industries.

“I can’t understand why [schools] are different,” he said. “I’m just wondering why it’s not OK with education if the for-profit company would provide a really high-quality education to our students.”

Johnson agreed.

“I don’t see a good reason to discriminate against a class like this,” he said.

But Democrats outnumbered Republicans and sent the measure to the full Legislature with an “ought to pass” recommendation.

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