AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill to put the brakes on the creation of virtual charter schools in Maine was approved by the Senate on Thursday and quickly vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

The bill aimed to stop the creation of virtual schools while the Department of Education develops its own online offerings, an initiative which was ordered by Gov. Paul LePage in 2012. LePage’s executive order called for the department to develop a plan and present it to the Legislature by January 2013.

In his veto letter, LePage wrote of the importance of a “‘blended learning’ model wherein students in traditional education environments can gain access to courses that are not offered in their school. This too is a critical piece of a well-rounded educational picture.” But, he wrote, blended learning and virtual programs are very different, so putting a moratorium on one doesn’t benefit the other.

He vetoed the bill, he wrote, “so that more Maine children will have the best educational opportunities for their specific needs.”

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee who is a co-sponsor of the moratorium bill, reacted to LePage’s veto with dismay.

“While I appreciate the governor’s acknowledgement of the value of blended learning, his veto means that limited public resources would be funneled toward a small number of students in a virtual school environment that has not yet been proven in Maine,” said Hubbell in a prepared statement. “It is our responsibility as a state to ensure that public education dollars are spent as effectively as possible to the benefit of all Maine students.”

LD 1736 has been under development in the Legislature’s Education Committee for months and came to the Senate just four days after the Maine Charter School Commission approved an application from Maine Connections Academy to open a virtual charter school in Maine this fall. The commission’s approval clears the way for the organization and the commission to develop a final contract in the coming weeks.

However, the Senate’s 24-11 vote on Thursday could have delayed that process until July 2015. The House passed the measure last week with a 91-55 vote, which falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Proponents of the bill said it would expand online learning opportunities to all Maine students, not just those who enroll in a virtual charter school.

“The goal is simple: give every Maine student an option to receive instruction in a course or series of courses in online offerings,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, one of the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “This bill brings all parties together to move Maine forward. … This short-lived moratorium will make the department finally move forward to make Maine’s digital resources more robust.”

Opponents of the measure, such as Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said it was just another route for charter school opponents to opposed the law that’s been on the books since 2011.

“The opponent of charter schools have used a number of tools to delay and prevent this evolution, which is necessary for students in Maine,” said Cushing. “We cannot continue to delay the process for Maine students. … This bill takes away the choice from parents and students and puts it in the hands of administrators.”

“It’s now March 2014 and a digital learning strategic plan has not been submitted,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who is the moratorium bill’s primary sponsor.

Amy Linscott, a member of the board of directors for Maine Connections Academy, the virtual charter school that was approved Monday by the charter school commission, said Thursday that her organization is watching the progress on Langley’s bill closely but isn’t changing its ramp-up process because of it.

“We are moving forward,” said Linscott. “We are very excited for this opportunity to bring the virtual school to the state of Maine. … If the moratorium does not happen, we’re ready to open the school this fall.”

Maine Connections Academy, which will be offered to grade 7-12 students in Maine with no tuition fee, seeks to serve up to 270 students from across Maine in its first year. Enrollment will open later this spring.

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.