Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Maine legislature takes aim at virtual charter schools

Regular readers of this space are aware of the ongoing controversy over full-time virtual charter schools, both here in Maine and in the wider nation. The taxpayer-financed schools -- where students receive most or all of their education remotely, over the internet, from their home computers -- have been the subject of increased scrutiny in many states due to poor academic results, aggressive participation in state policy formation, and allegations of improprieties. (On Maine, see my Sept. 2 investigation.)

The for-profit, remotely managed virtual school model-- aggressively defended by Gov. Paul LePage -- appears to be losing the confidence of Maine lawmakers, at least those in the new Democratic majority. As my story in today's Portland Press Herald reports, five Democrats -- including the senate president and a co-chair of the education committee - have proposed bills that would impose either temporary or permanent bans on virtual charter schools. Read on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Drug takeback programs: a puzzling federal rule change

One of the advantages of drug takeback programs -- voluntary efforts by which citizens return unwanted or unused prescription drugs for proper disposal -- is that they can be a source for determining what drugs are often being wasted. Here in Maine, tabulation of such information informed changes to the state Medicaid program to reduce waste -- by shorter initial prescriptions, for instance - and save the taxpayer money.

This is why yesterday's Maine Sunday Telegram story should be of interest. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has proposed rules changes that would explicitly forbid such data collection. The DEA declined to say if they'd considered these advantages when drafting the rules, which aim to prevent diversion of drugs and preserve patient anonymity. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine and a legislative champion of drug takebacks, says she'll be seeking further clarification from the DEA on this point.

At the state level, the story also notes an effort by the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, former chemical industry lobbyist Patricia Aho, to redefine rules governing how collected drugs are to be disposed. In short, they'd be reclassified from hazardous to household waste, allowing them to be burned in municipal waste incinerators in-state, with a hundred-fold cost savings. Whether this is sound policy or note depends on the conclusions and efficacy of upcoming tests at Portland's ecoMaine facility.

[Update, 9/26/15: Both rule changes have since been implemented, while US EPA has resumed funding of the national Take Back program, I report in today's Press Herald.]

Friday, January 18, 2013

Virtual schools: K12 Inc in trouble in Colorado

A further update for those following the virtual charter schools issue, both here in Maine and abroad: K12 Inc, the company seeking to open a virtual charter school in Maine, is in trouble in Colorado, where they have operated a similar virtual school for a decade.

As reported in today's Portland Press Herald, the K12-operated Colorado Virtual Academy is at risk of being shut down after a review body recommended that its charter not be renewed. The staff noted the school's poor performance -- it has ranked in the bottom tenth of Colorado school for three years running -- and the "undue influence" K12 exercised over the school's local governing board.

Last week, Maine's charter school commission expressed similar governance concerns in regards to the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, which would be operated by K12. Gov. Paul LePage blasted the commissioners for rejecting this and three other proposed schools, suggesting they resign and "go away." Also in today's story, the head of the national association of charter school authorizers has come to the Maine commission's defense against the governor.

As previously reported, K12 is also under investigation in Florida over allegations it used uncertified teachers and enlisted staff to cover it up. The preliminary results of that investigation are expected soon.

The companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation published Sept. 2 that revealed how they were influencing the creation of Maine's nascent digital school policies.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How slavery undid the wartime Confederacy

With the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us -- and an African-American about to be sworn in again as president of our union -- Washington Monthly has devoted their current issue to the issues the Civil War raised and only partially resolved.  My humble contribution to the effort was this review of a new history that shows how the ideology and institution of slavery crippled the Confederate war effort, and how the war itself undid slavery long before the surrender at Appomatox. (The book is Bruce Levine's The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South.)

Meanwhile, Thom Hartmann has an essay on Truthout.org that's been generating a lot of attention, as it presents a convincing historical argument that the Second Amendment was created at the behest of southern slave owners to maintain slave patrols.  Here's Patrick Henry of Virginia, laying out the need to add explicit protections for "well regulated militias": "If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia."

Interesting stuff, and in harmony with the world of the 18th century Deep South and Tidewater portrayed in American Nations.

Friday, January 11, 2013

In Maine, more heat on virtual schools

For those following the virtual charter schools issue here in Maine, it's been a dramatic week.

On Tuesday, the state's charter commission rejected both virtual charter school applications, a move expected to displease Gov. Paul LePage. The last time they failed to accept either of the two proposals -- one to be managed by K12 Inc., the other by Connections Learning -- the governor suggested they reconsider or resign. Indeed, LePage did not disappoint. On Wednesday he held two fiery press conferences where he proclaimed -- falsely -- that Maine had the worst public schools in the nation, that the charter commission had made their decision because of "intimidation" from public school interests, and that the commissioners should, indeed, resign.

Today the board president of one of the rejected schools, Maine Virtual Academy, made public an angry letter she sent to the charter commission, while education commissioner Steve Bowen did his best to defend the governor's position under pressure from both of WGAN radio's morning hosts.

Why all the heat?

For some background, you may want to read my investigation into the role K12 Inc and Connections Learning have played in developing digital policy here in Maine, and the associated sidebar on those company's track record in other states. It's worth noting that the board of Maine Connections Academy -- associated with Connections Learning -- consists of close LePage allies including Republican Party vice-chair Ruth Summers (wife of 2012 US Senate nominee Charlie Summers), state Rep. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough), and former state senator Carol Weston, who heads the state chapter of the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Maine panel rejects digital charters, governor blasts panel

As I reported in today's Portland Press Herald, Maine's charter school commission yesterday rejected two proposed full-time digital schools that were to be operated by the nation's largest online school companies, K12 Inc and Connections Learning.

The companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation published Sept. 2 that revealed how they were influencing the creation of Maine's nascent digital school policies.

The commissioners also rejected two of three "brick and mortar" charter school applications.

Earlier today, Gov. Paul LePage reacted angrily, suggesting the charter commission was broken and the commissioners should resign. Education Commissioner Steve Bowen attended the joint, impromptu press conference. My colleague Steve Mistler has the story.