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Maine Virtual Charter Schools Bill Hits Roadblock

An effort to establish so-called "virtual" charter schools in Maine hit a major roadblock in Augusta today, as the Maine House approved a moratorium on online public school classes. In states such as Pennsylvania, more than 3,000 students are enrolled in home-based, online classes from kindergarten through the twelvth grade. But Maine lawmakers say they want to study the issue further, before they open the doors.

Maine lawmakers have struggled with the virtual charter schools issue throughout the session. Supporters include some parents seeking to augment a home-schooling curriculum, and others who claim the online format offers benefits for certain types of students.

But legislators such as Boothbay Democrat Bruce MacDonald cite one reason for proceeding cautiously on virtual charter schools: "The dismally poor performance of virtual public schools across the nation according to national reports."

MacDonald, a former teacher, led the call to support LD 995, a bill that would place a moratorium on virtual charter schools until the Legislature approves a plan for implementation of a part-time online charter school that could be studied. The bill requires the Maine Charter School Commission to draft legislation that would permit high school students to take some classes online.

Still, MacDonald remains skeptical, at best. "In the USA overall, 50 percent of schools meet adequate yearly performance, but virtual public schools meet only 29 percent," he said. "So, I think, based upon that, we need to ask questions as to why we ought to move forward with virtual charter schools in this state."

The moratorium is favored by most Democrats. But not by Rep. Alan Casavant of Biddeford, who says opponents of exploring different approaches to education are focused on the wrong issues.

"We talk about things like money and school systems and we never talk about students and what they need," Casavant said. "And I would argue that some need charter schools."

Casavant, also a former teacher, says too many young students are falling through the cracks of Maine school systems. He sees virtual charter schools as an approach that could help some of those students.

"You know that the first few years of school that they love school - it's something fantastic, they get thrilled by it," Casavant said. "And then somewhere around the fourth or fifth or sixth grade - all of a sudden: 'Mom, Dad, do I have to go to school?' The dread comes in, they don't want to go. They lose the spark.  So I say this: If we can create an alternative - some sort of innovation - that allows our kids to retain the spark that they had when they were younger that wants them to go to school, shouldn't we offer them that option?"

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, opposes a blanket moratorium, and says the Maine Charter School Commission is already positioned to address the issue of online education without enacting further legislation.

"There have been many - or at least several - applications by virtual charter schools that have also been denied by the Charter School Commission, so I think if we let them do their work, I think this stuff is going to get done in the way that it should get done, and technically you don't even need a moratorium," Fredette said.

But there were a number of legislators, such as Rep. James Campbell, an un-enrolled member from Newfield, who say the state should focus on finally delivering education promises made nearly 20 years ago, including funding 55 percent of local school costs.

"The thing we should do is support our teachers and support public education, as we all have for years, and come up with the 55 percent," Campbell said, "and never mind all this other stuff right now."

The House approved the moratorium for virtual charter schools in a 91-56 vote. The bill faces additional votes in both chambers.