AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would place a moratorium on the creation of virtual public charter schools in Maine passed through the Senate on Tuesday over objections that doing so would infringe on an already adequate approval process.

LD 995, which was sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would put a full moratorium on the approval or operation of virtual charter schools in Maine until enactment of laws and guidelines that govern them. It calls on the Maine Charter School Commission to study the issue and bring recommendations back to the full Legislature by Dec. 1 of this year.

The Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage in 2011 passed Maine’s first-ever charter school law, which allows 10 charter schools in the state to be formed prior to 2021, including virtual schools. Alfond’s bill seeks to create a new set of laws for virtual charter schools, in which students complete school most or all of their classes with a computer and Internet connection.

Chief among the arguments in support of the bill were what some senators said is a troubled history of virtual charter schools in other states and the fact that virtual charter schools have the potential to drain funding from traditional public schools. As the law currently stands, virtual schools would receive the same per-pupil allocation that brick-and-mortar charter schools do, which some argue is unfair because virtual schools have far lower overhead costs.

“It makes sense for us to use extreme caution,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee. “Many other states are already taking similar steps. We should not and cannot risk the future education of our students.”

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he’s against the concept of virtual charter schools on a wide scale.

“I think there’s a very limited number of people who can learn online better than with someone in the classroom,” said Jackson.

Senators who opposed the bill during Tuesday’s debate said the Maine Charter School Commission already has very high approval standards and has already rejected two applications for virtual public charter schools.

“[The commission] have taken their duty very seriously and in fact has denied all virtual charter school applications to date,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who also sits on the Education Committee. “Really this bill is about micromanagement. We should let them do their job.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, said he sees the bill as an attempt to unravel the law that allows virtual schools.

“This bill is called a moratorium but I would suggest it’s a DNR [do not resuscitate],” said Mason. “I don’t understand why we’re stifling creative learning methods in our classroom.”

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen opposed the bill during the committee process.

“The Charter School Commission has moved slowly and deliberately in its review of virtual charter schools,” he said, according to his written testimony. “We don’t need to add more statutory requirements.”

The Maine Education Association and Maine School Management Association disagreed.

“We have deep concerns about the experience of other states when it comes to online schools,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the MEA. “We have found study after study that shows these schools fail our children, fail our community and yet rake in millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.”

LD 995, which passed on a party-line vote in the Education Committee last month and 22-13 Tuesday in the Senate, faces more votes in the House and Senate before it goes to LePage for his consideration.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.