Creating a virtual education monopoly is a step in the wrong direction

The Maine State House in Augusta. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

The Maine State House in Augusta. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

The debate over approving and implementing charter schools in Maine, especially digital learning options for Maine students, continues to heat up.

As I write, legislation is moving forward in Augusta that threatens to undercut the lengthy, thoughtful and rigorous Charter School Commission school approval process and instead send Maine parents and students back to the digital learning drawing board. What an insult to a commission that has toiled away for months on behalf of students — guided by the very law the legislature approved.

One bill that has already passed the House places a moratorium on any new online public charter schools and instead proposes a planning process to create a single, state government-run virtual school or a state-managed online course exchange.

“Maine built” may sound appealing at first blush, but it’s hard to imagine this proposal is anything other than a union-backed attempt to deny Maine students the opportunity to access new online educational options. That’s not surprising. But that it comes at the expense of Maine students is unacceptable.

The need for online schools exists now, and two proposed schools — thoroughly vetted by the Charter School Commission — are ready to begin serving students next year if their applications are approved by the commission next week. Yet this legislation limits digital learning to one state-run program that could be years in the making.

Why should we believe that a government-run virtual education monopoly will best serve our students? We shouldn’t.

The state could spend millions of dollars it doesn’t have trying to design, manage and operate a virtual school with no resources identified for the undertaking and no guarantee of success. It’s worth remembering that the state can’t even achieve the 55 percent school funding threshold already mandated by voters.

A recent Portland Press Herald editorial argued that costs to operate a virtual school “would be lower if the state ran its own academy.” Facts and history tell otherwise.

An official with the Maine Department of Education testified earlier this month that a state-run school would be a lot costlier and more difficult to operate than supporters assume, potentially costing taxpayers upwards of $6.5 million.

Children with special needs, the victims of bullying, athletes preparing to compete in the Olympics or those suffering from learning disabilities or acute medical issues often find that excelling in a traditional classroom is difficult or impossible. That leaves many Maine parents looking for educational alternatives beyond brick and mortar schools that will allow their children to thrive.

If local control issues are motivating Augusta lawmakers, they should be comforted by the fact that the two proposed online charter schools would use Maine-certified teachers, would be governed by independent, nonprofit boards consisting of Maine parents, educators and community leaders, and would be overseen by both the Maine Charter School Commission and Maine Department of Education. These are, after all, designed to be Maine public schools open to all students regardless of their geography or circumstances.

Virtual learning is not a zero sum game, and legislators shouldn’t sacrifice the best interests of Maine students to serve the self-interest of Maine’s entrenched and unyielding educational old guard. Let’s put our trust in the hands of parents and the Charter School Commission, not agenda-driven forces in Augusta trying to deny children their right to a quality education.