Maine should revisit law for virtual schools

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After three years, Massachusetts’ first virtual school will close this summer, calling into question the wisdom of Maine’s approach to operating virtual charter schools.

The Greenfield School Committee voted to close Massachusetts Virtual Academy last week in the face of a new state law requiring the school to be overseen by the state.

The virtual school, where children learn by computer from home, had also come under fire for poor performance.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting recently reported that Virtual Academy “ranked second lowest statewide in its students’ progress in math and English based on a measure called the student growth percentile, which compares a given student’s … scores over time with those of similar students.”

The school also suffered from a 25 percent dropout rate last year and each fall 20 to 30 percent of its students do not return.

The school accepted full-time students from 149 school districts, students who left their local schools to attend the virtual school from home.

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For each student, the districts turned over $5,000 a year to the Virtual Academy to use a curriculum provided by a national online education firm called K12.

Maine adopted its first charter school legislation in 2011, and five brick-and-mortar charter schools have been approved by the Maine Charter School Commission. The schools are largely exempt from the regulations that govern local public schools.

Maine’s charter school legislation requires virtual schools here to offer a broad curriculum and to accept all students who apply, similar to the Massachusetts Virtual Academy model.

Yet several studies indicate this full-time, broad-based model for virtual schools is the most likely to fail.

The Portland Press Herald summarized some of this research in an award-winning series it produced last year on virtual-school proposals in Maine.

Groups representing the nation’s two largest for-profit virtual school companies have applied for charter school authorization in Maine, but were rejected last year for technical reasons.

One of the groups, Maine Virtual Academy, uses the same national vendor as Massachusetts Virtual Academy: K12.

The Press Herald series traced the flow of donations from four online school companies to conservative advocacy groups, and from there into the campaign coffers of Maine legislators and Gov. Paul LePage.

In fact, the Maine legislation was drafted by the virtual school firms and their lobbyists.

Volunteer groups attempting to set up virtual charter schools in Maine say the schools would benefit a small number of students who are, for one reason or another, so unhappy with public schools they are willing to withdraw.

That would likely include high achievers, low achievers, students who have been bullied, live in remote areas or whose parents object to the cultural atmosphere in local schools for philosophic or religious reasons.

Each child would have a learning coach, usually a parent, who would oversee the child’s progress. Meanwhile, a qualified Maine teacher working with the online vendor also would be available to check the child’s progress and advise parents and children.

Most experts believe all children should have an online component to their education, but they differ on how that instruction should be delivered.

One expert, Michael Barbour, a professor at Wayne State University, told the Sun Journal that in his experience, full-time, broad-based virtual schools are more likely to produce poor and mediocre results.

Barbour said programs targeted at and tailored for certain kinds of students, like high or low achievers, or those who have dropped out of school, usually show good results.

He said programs developed by existing schools to serve populations of students that are not doing well are the most likely to succeed.

Students who leave the traditional system for virtual schools but who then quit their virtual schools produce two headaches for brick-and-mortar schools.

First, they are usually far behind and need remediation when they return, and, second, the money to educate the children has already been paid to the online vendor.

Detaching students completely appears to be more risky than a “blended learning” approach that combines a virtual school with brick-and-mortar school supervision, where the pace and place of learning is determined by the student.

Yet the enabling legislation in Maine requires the opposite, that students completely detach from a public school before joining a virtual school.

A study produced last year by Gary Miron for the National Education Policy Center found that K12 students are less likely to come from impoverished families, are less likely to be English language learners or disabled.

Yet the study found that on math and reading assessments “K12-operated virtual schools consistently lag behind performance levels of the states from which the schools draw their students.”

Meanwhile, the on-time graduation rate of K12 schools is 49 percent compared to 79 percent for students in their states.

Based upon the findings, the authors recommended that states slow or stop the growth of full-time virtual schools and move cautiously and “only after piloting and thoroughly vetting new ideas.”

In light of the recent research and the closing of Virtual Academy in Massachusetts, legislators here should revisit the questionable model we have mandated for virtual schools in Maine.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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