Education

Don’t close the book on virtual charter schools

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State Representative Michael Brennan of Portland recently introduced a pair of bills concerning the future of virtual schooling in Maine. One of these bills, LD 513 proposes to cap enrollment at Maine’s virtual charter schools.

If passed, these schools would not be allowed to accept any more students, nor expand to new grade levels beyond their current charter. The other bill introduced by Brennan, LD 576 would direct the state Department of Education to develop and implement an online learning platform and report to the education committee on its findings.

These two bills, both of which Brennan is the primary sponsor, should raise red flags for school choice advocates across Maine. Virtual schools connect students with lectures, lessons, interactive activities and certified faculty. They provide a crucial educational outlet that students from rural areas would not otherwise have, and offer specialized learning options to students who have struggled in traditional public schools.

There are only two virtual charter schools operating in Maine: Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, for which the state renewed the charter agreement last November. Does forcing these otherwise successful schools to suppress expansion advance the cause of public education? Will Maine’s rural families continue to have access to the educational options they need and crave?

Surely Rep. Brennan believes that technological competence is crucial for rising generations, and that students across Maine deserve access to schooling that works best for them. But why then would he submit a proposal stifling these schools?

As a former mayor of Portland, he should know the value of a diverse educational landscape. He has seen the benefits of specialized learning that schools like the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science and PATHS, Portland’s public charter school and arts and technology-focused CTE school, deliver to students and families in the greater-Portland area every day.

Even with only 9 out of the 10 allowed charter school spots filled across the state, Maine’s charter school program ranks among the top 10 states in the country by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Perhaps Rep. Brennan has not yet been convinced that charter schools benefit students whom the traditional schooling model leaves behind. Maybe he is worried that a virtual charter school could operate without the same accountability standards as brick-and-mortar schools. I reached out to Rep. Brennan to gather some of his reasoning behind these two bills, but as of this printing, he has not responded.

Now, there have been mixed reviews on the academic results of full-time purely-online schools nationally, especially looking at test scores, but these alternative learning environments should not be judged the same way that we judge the traditional schooling model.

In order to even compare, the authors of a 2015 CREDO study had to develop a methodology that created a “virtual twin” for every student in a traditional public school (page 6). They didn’t have data tied to real virtual charter students, so they had to extrapolate the data based on test scores of students in traditional schools.

Dr. Cara Candal of the Pioneer Institute has written extensively on charter schools and she deftly exposes the shortcomings of CREDO researchers in a report for the Center for Education Reform (page 14). She will visit Portland this month for a luncheon and talk on her latest book, “The Fight for the Best Charter Public Schools in the Nation.”

Considering the substandard results of the broad public school system, educational models that dare to challenge the status quo should not be measured by how well students can regurgitate material on a test. After all, school choice advocates support alternative schools precisely because they experiment. They attempt different methods to reach students of all types of learning styles. We cannot rely on the old model to assess a new model.

Many opponents of charter schools offer kneejerk condemnations, blaming charters for competing for public school resources and attendance. The fact is, these schools provide a much-needed array of approaches to a problem that requires diverse solutions.

The system should encourage experimentation with public charter schools. Maine’s elected officials must do everything they can to empower parents and educational entrepreneurs, not unions and bureaucrats.

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About Nick Murray

Nick is the Outreach Coordinator at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, working to plan events, engage with supporters, and spread the word about MHPC's work to new audiences around the state.

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