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School Choice Goes Digital with Virtual Charter Schools

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Public education is getting a 21st Century shake-up.

Back in September, Maine’s very first virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, opened its doors. More recently, on October 15, the Maine Charter School Commission unanimously voted to advance the application for what could be the state’s second virtual charter school. In less than a month, the commission will decide whether Maine Virtual Academy should be authorized as a charter school for the 2015–2016 school year.

So far, demand for online public education has been high. The Maine Connections Academy has 297 students in grades 7–12 enrolled from all across the state, the maximum allowed by law. Another 175 kids are on the waiting list. In Portland, school officials even toyed with the idea of creating their own virtual curriculum to lure back students attending the Academy, but decided to table that plan.

At Maine Connections Academy, students learn by following a curriculum contracted from Connections Education, which supports 25 online public schools in nearly two dozen states, and by listening in on live lessons taught by teachers.

This flexibility grants virtual charter schools several distinct advantages over traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools. Kids who have anxiety problems or were bullied at their public schools may find a virtual charter to be a more nurturing environment. Students with disabilities, medical conditions or other physical limitations can better learn at a virtual charter without these restrictions. Virtual charter schools can suit kids living in rural, low-density areas or students who have robust training schedules that don’t neatly fit standard school hours.

Families looking for an alternative to homeschooling have also flocked to online public education. About one-quarter of the students at Maine Connections Academy were previously taught at home.

Thanks to a much-needed reform, hundreds of students are benefiting from school choice in Maine. In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools. After 18 failed attempts, lawmakers were finally able to pass LD 1553, “an act to create a public charter school program in Maine.” Passing with rather wide majorities in the House and the Senate, LD 1553 lets the Maine Charter School Commission authorize up to 10 charter schools, though the cap will be lifted after 10 years. Additionally, local school boards can authorize charter schools within their jurisdictions, though these locally authorized charter schools do not count toward that 10-school restriction. Maine currently has six charter schools, including Maine Connections Academy, educating almost 900 students.

To comply with the law, charter schools have to be secular and open to all students. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, funding from school districts follows enrolled students. Unlike magnet schools (which charter schools are sometimes confused with), charter schools cannot have entrance exams or screen students. While charter schools are still public schools, they do have more flexibility and autonomy in selecting staff, curriculum and the like. This autonomy lets charter schools be more innovative and responsive to the needs of students and parents. Nationwide, 6,000 charter schools serve approximately 2.3 million students, according to the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice.

Charter schools are the latest development in Maine’s unique legacy of school choice. Under its “tuitioning” system, parents in towns too small to have public schools receive vouchers to send their children to any nonsectarian school of their choice, public or private. Dating back to 1873, tuitioning is one of the oldest school choice programs in the nation.

Unfortunately, the scale and scope of both tuitioning and charter schools is rather limited. So the vast majority of families in Maine are unable to choose their children’s education. To ensure that all children have a chance at a quality education, school choice must be expanded.

About Dick Komer and Nick Sibilla

Dick Komer is a senior attorney and Nick Sibilla is a communications associate with the Institute for Justice, which litigates nationwide in defense of school choice.

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