Saturday, February 1, 2014

Maine: Virtual charter schools back on the table

For those who recall my 2012 investigation of virtual charter school policy in Maine -- which won a George Polk Award last year -- there's been a new development this week.

The state's authorizing body, the charter school commission, surprised many by giving initial approval to the applications of two twice-rejected virtual school applicants, those backed by controversial national online school providers K12 Inc and Connections Learning. The two companies have been in hot water across the country for running schools that score badly in most standardized quality metrics and for having too much control over the local boards that are supposed to be their bosses. Indeed, in Maine my reporting showed that K12 and Connections provided the impetus for the creation of the local boards for their respective schools.

The charter school commission's move follows unsuccessful legislative action to curb or ban virtual charter schools from the state, or to create a state run virtual school that would presumably have more distance from the for-profit providers; the governor's digital education advisory panel failed to champion the virtual schools -- where tuition is paid for by local taxpayers -- in their initial report last year.

The commission also gave a preliminary nod to a Lewiston-Auburn charter school with links to the curious Gulen movement, thought to be one of the key players in the current political crisis in Turkey. The Gulen-linked Turkish Cultural Center of Maine has sponsored trips for several state legislators and held an awards dinner for Gov. Paul LePage recently in Portland. Gulen's followers also has a penchant for creating U.S. charter schools, as revealed by the New York Times a few years back.

Don't get me wrong: when I was based in the Balkans, I was a frequent visitor to Turkey and think it an impressive and fascinating place. But one does wonder: why all the attention to diplomacy and education in the Pine Tree State? No other country save perhaps Canada has given our humble corner of the U.S. so much, and they're our neighbor, one-time source of emigrants to Maine, and a major economic partner. Perhaps all will soon be clear.

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