(NEWS CENTER) -- This year may be the last chance for a while for a virtual school to open in Maine. The state's charter school commission is only allowed to approve 10 charter schools in its first 10 years. So far, it's approved 5, and none of them are virtual schools. This year, 7 schools have indicated they will apply for the last 5 spots, meaning at least two schools won't make the cut. And it should come as no surprise that two of those potential applicants are virtual schools that have twice been rejected by the charter commission: Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy.
Students at virtual schools take all their classes online, but proponents will tell you that doesn't mean they spend all their time staring at a screen. Patricia Negron, whose family used to live in Maine but now lives in Colorado, said virtual education allows her 3 children to work at their own pace, take field trips when appropriate, even meet other students from time to time.
"The experience has been tremendous. The curriculum is terrific. It actually adapts to the child," Negron said.
Colorado Virtual Academy, or COVA, has a curriculum run by one of the companies hoping to partner with a school board here in Maine, K12. Amy Carlisle, the President of Maine Learning Innovations is hoping to bring that K12 curriculum here in the form of Maine Virtual Academy.
She said the two rejections by Maine's Charter Commission has helped her and the other local board members focus on bringing a small virtual school experience to about 300 7-12th graders in Maine.
"We're talking about a really small group of students to start this school with. So that will enable our board, our head of school, our head of instruction, to really wrap their hands around how it's working for each student," Carlisle said.
Critics of virtual schools, though, say they have an abysmal record in other states and have no place in Maine. The Maine Education Association's review of research on virtual schools points to a study out of Stanford University showing Pennsylvania's virtual students tended to be more affluent than traditional school peers, but scored worse on tests. Researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center found only 33 percent of students using the K-12 virtual curriculum met Adequate Yearly Progress in their states. Negron's school, COVA, nearly lost its charter earlier this year because of poor student performance.
MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley said, "Honestly, we don't want virtual schools to come to Maine because we don't think it's best for Maine students."
The Maine Charter School Commission has rejected both Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy twice, mainly out of concern that the out of state corporations that provide the curriculum would have far too much control over the local school board.
Jana Lapoint, the Charter School Commission chair said, "It looked like they were rubber stamp committees, and that they really didn't understand virtual. And it was almost as if one individual had said, "Will you help me and come on the board?"
But the Charter School Commission believes virtual schools can work here with the right plan and local control. A 2009 analysis from the US Department of Education found evidence that students taking classes online could do better than those in traditional classrooms.
So this year, the charter commission has new rules for proposed virtual schools. They can only serve students in grades 7-12. They have to have a small student population, students need face to face contact with teachers at least once a week, and the local boards have to do the hiring and firing of school management.
"I think we've made it tough for them to play, I really do," Lapoint said. "They know they've got to do a lot more work than either one of them did before. They truly will."
Carlisle said she understands what's expected, and her board thinks the charter commission's demands make a lot of sense. The board is modeling its new approach on virtual schools in Michigan, where students have regular face to face contact with teachers online, and the results have been good. Michigan Virtual Academy has been given the green light to expand.
She also says the new contract with K12 will give the local board power to hire and fire both the head of school and the business manager.