AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee on Wednesday kicked off what is sure to be a spirited debate about virtual charter schools when its members voted 11-2 in favor of a bill that would place a moratorium on the approval of virtual charter schools while the state attempts to create its own.

LD 1736, proposed by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, has been the subject of several amendments in recent days and saw another amendment by Langley on Wednesday morning. The latest version of the bill, which was voted out of the committee with two Republicans opposed, contains both short- and long-term means for all Maine students to have access to virtual education beginning this fall.

It calls for the state to build a relationship in the short term with New Hampshire Virtual Academy. In the meantime, a stakeholders group created by the bill would explore the possibility of Maine state government creating its own virtual academy or online exchange.

That group would have to work quickly in order to begin a request-for-proposals process by July 31. If the request isn’t issued in time, the moratorium on virtual schools would end July 31. If the request does go out, the moratorium would be extended until Jan. 15, 2015, when the full report from the stakeholders group would be due.

Even though LD 1736 needs legislative approval — and must make it through the governor’s office — it creates a conflict for the Maine Charter School Commission, which earlier this month gave initial approval to two virtual charter school applications. A final vote on those schools is scheduled for March 3, which would be followed by a weeks-long process of the commission developing contracts with the groups that have applied to run those schools.

On Tuesday, the bill appeared to be in trouble after testimony by Jeff Mao, the Maine Department of Education’s learning technology policy director, who said the creation of a state-run virtual charter school is fraught with challenges that so far haven’t been resolved anywhere. Proponents of Langley’s bill pushed back on Wednesday by citing a virtual learning portal in Ohio called ilearnOhio as an example of what Maine’s program could look like.

“This would seem to be a live demonstration that the necessary technology not only exists but is up and running with a service that is similar to what Mr. Mao asserted as infeasible,” wrote RSU 74 Superintendent Ken Coville in an email to the Bangor Daily News. Coville took a lead role in helping Langley develop the bill.

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier told the committee Wednesday morning that his department will do what it’s told to do by the Legislature, but that resources are already spread thin, especially for a project with such a short timeline.

“I’m concerned about the timeline you’ve laid out and proposed but I remain committed to expanding opportunities for students,” he said.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday afternoon that he expects the bill to go through the House and Senate before the March 3 charter school commission vote. He said the fact that — in addition to receiving support from all Democrats on the Education Committee — the bill was proposed by Langley and co-sponsored by Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, could mean that it will gain bipartisan support in the Legislature.

“I think it’s going to be a bipartisan vote to ensure that we do this right,” said Alfond. “I think that we finally have the right controls and triggers in place to make sure that if we can’t do this, the moratorium goes away. It really puts the Legislature in charge of virtual charter schools in Maine. … We would like to make sure that the moratorium is in place by March 3.”

The two Republicans on the Education Committee who voted against the bill were Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, and Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta.

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.