“Youth comes but once in a lifetime,” said Maine’s own poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As a two term State Representative who grew up in northern and southern Maine, I know first-hand the value of a Maine-based public school education. I also believe one-size-fits-all is not the approach to K-12 education that families throughout the state deserve.
As a mother of four, I have spoken with families who want to provide a healthy learning environment for their children—one with maximum flexibility to meet the diverse needs of their households. Families of students who are hospitalized or homebound, have anxiety or behavioral issues, learn at a faster or slower pace, or students who are training to be performing artists or professional athletes should be able to choose the academic environment that best cultivates learning in their children.
In my personal life, I have seen students for whom traditional public school is not a good fit. When our oldest son was seven, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (AS), an autism spectrum disorder that causes difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication and is characterized by restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Our son received support resources at his traditional public school until his behavior plan was changed without our consent or knowledge; we could only tell because he started coming home agitated. Our son went from being happy and enjoying school to hating it. Within a few weeks, we were instructed to pick him up. He remained out of school without a plan for almost three months. After an expensive out-of-district placement, he was eventually transferred back to our local school, but never really recovered academically. Our son is now 23 and we are fortunate to be able to provide the resources and support that he needs to thrive as an adult. A different learning environment could have helped my son.
In the last four years since the legislature passed an award-winning charter school law and Maine became the 41st state to offer school choice, families have begun to have options. Until this fall, however, educational choice in Maine has been limited by geography. If you lived in an area near one of the new charter schools, you had choice. If not, you were out of luck. With the opening of Maine’s first full-time virtual charter school, 297 students in grades 7-12 from all over Maine have chosen to enroll in Maine Connections Academy (MCA). Beginning September 2, MCA will combine virtual education with real connections among students, family, certified local teachers, and the community to promote academic and emotional success for students.
Maine Connections Academy has a South Portland teaching center staffed by locally certified teachers and support staff. The school is governed by a local volunteer board and overseen by the Maine Charter School Commission, which is part of the State Department of Education. Because charter schools must fulfill the terms of their contract while also administering the same state-mandated assessments, they are actually held to a higher standard than traditional public schools. If the terms of the contract are not met, they can be shut down. Maine’s law benefitted from mistakes made in other states, which permitted unsuccessful charter schools to continue to operate.
Nationwide, families are finding success with online school. In the 2012–13 school year, an estimated 310,000 students in 30 states received their educations from fully online schools, according to Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning, a recently released national report.
We must remain focused on students and their unique needs. Educational choice is not about replacing traditional schools. It is about providing options for families whose students will benefit from a different school environment and learning approach. Youth is too precious and education is too valuable—we owe it to our all of our students to provide innovative schooling options.