AUGUSTA — The future of virtual charter schools in Maine could head in a new direction because of two bills under consideration in the Legislature, including a moratorium on the creation of online schools which passed with significant support Tuesday in the House of Representatives.
Another bill presented Monday to the Legislature’s Education Committee, but which hasn’t yet been the subject of any votes, targets funding for virtual charter schools by allocating them less money per student than traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
Tuesday’s 94-51 House vote on LD 1736 could delay two virtual charter school applications that are pending with the Maine Charter School Commission, which is scheduled to take final votes on the applications on Monday. The commission preliminarily approved the applications in late January. The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate.
While the bill’s supporters argued it would allow the state time to develop its own virtual academy — which Gov. Paul LePage asked for by executive order in February 2012 — opponents said it was a thinly veiled attempt to derail the charter commission’s approval of Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, both of which have been attempting to gain approval for more than a year.
The bill, which was endorsed by the Legislature’s Education Committee with an 11-2 vote, contains both short- and long-term means for all Maine students to have access to online education beginning this fall.
It calls for the state to build a relationship in the short term with New Hampshire Virtual Academy, which already offers online courses to its residents. Under the agreement, Maine students would be able to enroll in the courses. In the meantime, a stakeholders group created by the bill would explore the possibility of Maine state government creating its own virtual academy or online exchange.
That group would have to work quickly in order to begin a request-for-proposals process by July 31. If the request isn’t issued in time, the moratorium on virtual schools would end July 31. If the request does go out, the moratorium would be extended until Jan. 15, 2015, when the full report from the stakeholders group would be due.
Debate in the House on Tuesday was vigorous. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who voted against the bill, said the Legislature shouldn’t interfere with the charter commission’s business.
“The goals of the bill are laudable and appreciated. However, the effects of the bill are somewhat cloudy,” said Fredette. “The fundamental issue here that’s really going on is that there’s a moratorium in the bill. … We have two pending applications before the charter school commission, which this Legislature could essentially stop dead in its tracks.”
Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, who is the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, voted in favor of the bill in committee but switched his vote Tuesday afternoon on the House floor.
“This is a particularly difficult speech for me to give because I’m a sponsor on this bill,” said Johnson. “Through the course of considering the bill itself, I felt strongly about the potential. … [But] the moratorium for a year is unacceptable. I believe competition in our school system is good, so I’m going to have to change my vote.”
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, is a volunteer president of the board of directors for Maine Connections Academy, one of the organizations that has a virtual charter school application pending with the charter commission.
“A moratorium on all other virtual charter schools hijacks a carefully formulated approval process,” said Volk. “The Maine Charter School Commission has taken its task very seriously. The current process is a careful and deliberative response to prior concerns and it is only fair that the current virtual charter school applications be given the due process they deserve.”
Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, is another member of the Education Committee. He said the state should be given the opportunity to comply with LePage’s executive order.
“This bill would kick-start that effort. … We owe it to Maine’s taxpayers to employ state funding for education as effectively and cost effectively as possible,” said Hubbell.
Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said the virtual charter schools that are proposed wouldn’t serve as many students as a state-run school would.
“This bill would serve all Maine children, not just a few hundred like the virtual charter schools would,” said Daughtry.
Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, one of the two Education Committee Republicans who voted against recommending passage of the bill in committee, said he is working on an amendment that would move LD 1736 forward without the moratorium language, but that the amendment was not ready for Tuesday debate in the House.
“The second I proposed in committee an amendment taking away the moratorium, the support for this bill just ran away,” said Pouliot. “The only reason some of these interest groups came forward to support this bill is because the moratorium was part of it.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Bruce MacDonald, R-Boothbay, wrote the amendment to LD 1617, which would require the Department of Education to develop a new method of funding virtual charter schools.
“The cost structure for these schools is significantly different from the cost structure for brick-and-mortar schools, yet the funding mechanism in the current law makes no distinction between the two forms of education,” MacDonald testified before the joint standing committee on education and cultural affairs on Monday.
“Virtual charter schools have none of the costs associated with brick-and-mortar schools such as heating, lighting, student transportation, facilities maintenance, and security,” his testimony said.
MacDonald suggested that the DOE would develop a new method of funding that would cover teachers, professional development, administrative costs and supplies on a per-student basis.
“I’m not at a point where I would assume that the virtuals are going to be significantly less,” said education commissioner Jim Rier.
He added, “I think it’s a reasonable question to ask.”
The education committee will have a work session on the bill in the coming weeks.