AUGUSTA, Maine — The concept of a state-created virtual charter school open to all Maine students hit a roadblock Tuesday when an information technology expert from the Department of Education described it as a “holy grail” idea that education experts nationwide have tried but so far failed to achieve.

At issue on Tuesday in the Legislature’s Education Committee was LD 1736, a measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, which would put a moratorium on the authorization of virtual charter schools while the state develops its own virtual offerings.

The bill is being closely watched, partially because the Maine Charter School Commission is in the midst of considering two virtual school applications that will be the subject of final votes on March 3. The commission originally had those votes scheduled for March 4 but the date has been changed.

Langley’s original proposal was for the state to lead an effort to create a virtual academy which would be available to every student in Maine — from public school students to homeschoolers and private school attendees — but he presented an amendment on Tuesday that changed the concept to creating a sort of online exchange through which numerous entities inside and outside Maine would offer courses. RSU 74 Superintendent Ken Coville helped Langley develop the amendment and presented it to the committee Tuesday afternoon.

Jeff Mao, the Maine Department of Education’s learning technology policy director, said the resources needed to create such a system — especially one that tracks student progress and includes a way to continually assess its own quality — would be considerable, if it’s possible at all.

“The challenge is that these pieces that [Coville] described are not as trivial to build as we might think,” said Mao. “It does presume a lot of infrastructure that sits on top of it that today has yet to exist anywhere.”

Regardless, there was interest among committee members in creating some kind of system that would allow students to access a statewide virtual school. The difference between this concept and the two proposed virtual charter schools is that students would have the freedom to take anything from a single lesson to a full course to a year’s worth of courses.

“I certainly appreciate the proposal that’s before us and I see a lot of value in that,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the committee. “Having been thinking about this for a while, all along I felt this tension between recognizing that there is an immediate and urgent need and opportunity for virtual learning and then the simultaneous realization that the task is a large and ambitious one, and that we also need time to ensure that ultimately we are doing something thoughtful. … I’m interested in whatever we can do as quickly as possible to give these opportunities to all Maine students.”

Some members of the committee favored modeling the school on a system in Vermont, where teachers in some schools offer their courses concurrently online to students in other schools, or in New Hampshire, which sets aside money to pay for students to take courses from existing virtual schools.

Langley said he sponsored the bill after being approached by constituents who wanted a simple moratorium on the creation of virtual charter schools, which Langley said he doesn’t support.

“What I was interested in was finding a way to expand opportunities for students all across the state to have access to digital content and would use the incredible interest in a moratorium to further that effort along,” he said.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, suggested breaking Langley’s proposal into two bills, one that would include a simple moratorium and another that pursues a state-run virtual academy or online exchange.

However, after a 10-minute break from the public proceedings, the committee came back and promptly voted to table the measure until Wednesday morning. Langley said afterwards that he doesn’t know what direction the conversation will head when the committee reconvenes.

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.