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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

4/3/2014 10:37:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Legislature Considers Funding Model for Virtual Schools
by Andy O’Brien

Any day now, Maine's Legislature is expected to take up a measure to create a separate funding model for full-time virtual schools, which are Internet platforms that allow children to attend school full-time from their home computers.

LD 1617, sponsored by committee chair Rep. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay), passed the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on a party-line vote of 8-5, but will likely face a veto by virtual school supporter Governor Paul LePage. Controversy has swirled around virtual schools ever since the governor signed a law in 2011 allowing public education money to be diverted from traditional school districts to privately managed charter schools.

Although virtual schools must be governed by a non-profit board of directors, the schools contract with for-profit education management organizations (EMO) for the online platform and materials. While state policymakers have rigorously studied the cost structure of brick-and-mortar schools to determine per-pupil funding, the state has not developed a separate funding model for full-time online schools. As a result, the same per-pupil allowance of around $6,000 to $7,000 that goes to brick-and-mortar schools would go to online virtual schools. Last month, the Maine Charter School Commission approved an application for Maine Connections Academy, a new virtual charter school, which could open as early as September. The school hopes to enroll 300 students in grades 7-12, with an eventual goal of 750.

"Virtual charter schools are coming to Maine," said MacDonald in a prepared statement. "We need to make sure that they serve their students well, use taxpayer dollars sensibly and are fairly compensated for the services they provide -not for the ones they don't."

The bill ensures that services such as transportation, building maintenance and various programs not offered in the cyber setting are not included in the virtual school funding model. LD 1617 would also omit marketing as an essential cost for virtual schools and would clarify that students must actually "attend" the school for it to receive funding.

Windfall of Taxpayer Dollars

In support of the bill, Democrats expressed concerns that under the current funding model, private corporations could reap a windfall as taxpayer dollars would be diverted to pay dividends to virtual school shareholders. Maine Connections Academy will contract with Baltimore-based Connections Learning, a subsidiary of Pearson PLC, a British multinational corporation with a primary listing on the London Stock Exchange and a secondary listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Maine Virtual Academy, which contracts with publicly traded K12 Inc., has appealed for reconsideration to the Maine Charter School Commission after being rejected by one vote in March.

Voting against the bill to require a separate funding model for virtual schools, Republicans on the Education Committee said the bill could potentially complicate the RFP process for Maine Connections Academy and said more information was needed before developing a formula. Rep. Peter Johnson (R-Greenville) said that he would prefer that the funding question be handled by the Maine Charter School Commission.

"I think it's a complicated issue," said Johnson. "I would like to see the question answered, but I'm not ready for a bill like this."

However, according to MCSC spokesman Bob Kautz, although the commission approved a virtual school, it has not studied the actual costs of operating one.

"It's something that needs to be studied, to be sure, because one could easily think that it must be less expensive to operate a virtual charter school than a bricks-and-mortar because you don't have a building, but we don't know," said Kautz.

But he noted that it would require a study, which would cost money. He also expressed worries that if a funding model were created, it might not be adequate.

Subpar Performance

There are currently 311 full-time virtual schools enrolling 200,000 students in 30 states and the District of Columbia. A 2013 study on virtual schools released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado outlined a number of concerns about the online institutions - including curriculum quality, low graduation rates, competence of teachers, ability to properly monitor student achievement and a general subpar performance compared to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

The report also identified several policy recommendations associated with funding and governance, such as linking funding to actual costs, requiring financial accountability for student enrollment, and "limiting profiteering by EMOs." The researchers wrote that while virtual schools have enjoyed broad political support, "there is little credible research to support virtual schools' practices or to justify ongoing calls for ever-greater expansion."

"It's imperative for policymakers to slow or stop the growth of these schools until more research is done and accountability measures can be put into place," the report's authors concluded.

Both of Maine's virtual schools include influential political insiders on their boards. Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough and ex-Senator Carol Weston of the billionaire Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity both sit on the board of Connections Academy. The Maine Virtual Academy's board includes Democratic Rep. Alan Cassavant of Biddeford, Maine Turnpike Authority executive director Peter Mills, and Cianbro lobbyist Tim Walton.

K12 Inc. and Connections Learning have ties to the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes model legislation favorable to large business interests. According to research by the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, virtual school corporations have pushed through ALEC's model virtual school legislation in state legislatures across the country with the aim to replace brick-and-mortar schools with computers and traditional teachers with "virtual" teachers. The organization has described Maine's 2011 charter school law as resembling ALEC legislation.

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