BANGOR, Maine — A week into the school year, Maine’s first virtual charter school has enrolled close to 300 students, many of whom would otherwise be attending their community’s traditional public schools.
In response, some school districts have explored creating virtual programs to keep students from leaving their brick-and-mortar schools for the virtual charter and taking state and local funds with them.
Both the Portland and Lewiston school districts have proposed using Connections Academy, the same company that is used by the virtual charter school that opened this week, to create an online program within their districts.
“We need to increase the number of pathways by which our students can be successful,” said Lewiston Public School Superintendent Bill Webster. “We have students who have dropped out, left Lewiston schools or gone to charter schools because they have not found the pathway that works for them.”
The Lewiston School Board will vote on whether to move forward with the plan at their meeting on Monday.
Bangor School Department Superintendent Betsy Webb said she was not looking into the possibility.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk proposed a plan but dropped it when it did not gain support from the school board, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Caulk was not available to comment on Friday.
Webster said he learned that creating a virtual school within his district was possible when he was contacted by Connections Academy about two weeks ago. Under this proposal, he would pay the company about $4,000 per student who enrolls in the program.
Lewiston gets $5,927 for each student in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and $6,437 for high school students through the state’s funding formula, so the district is likely to save money if the program is approved by the Lewiston School Board and students enroll.
As of Sept. 2, there were three students from the Lewiston Public Schools who were enrolled at Maine Connections Academy, the new virtual charter school. Four students from Bangor and seven from Portland enrolled.
Connections Academy was paid to support 25 virtual charter schools in 23 states in the 2013-14 school year, according to its website.
The company is owned by Pearson PLC, a London-based, publicly traded publishing company that is responsible for many standardized tests and textbooks used in the U.S.
If the Lewiston program starts this year, the students who enroll will be taught by teachers who work for Pearson and are most likely located in other states, Webster said. Students in the program would be able to take classes at the Lewiston schools as well.
“I applaud them for trying to do that,” Karl Francis, the principal of Maine Connections Academy said. “It’s not uncommon [for Connections Academy] to be in more than one school in a state.”
There are now six charter schools in Maine, the first of which opened in 2012. Maine can authorize a total of 10 charter schools. Three groups applied in August for the four remaining spots.
Charter schools are funded through the school districts where the students would otherwise attend. School districts with students who attend a charter school pay the charter school an allocation, which includes state and local funding, for each student.
From the school district perspective, a problem with the money-following-student system is that the majority of costs associated with running a school are not per pupil. A district that has five high school students attending the new charter school, for example, can’t eliminate a teacher at its high school. Its heating costs haven’t dropped, and it still fields the same number of sports teams and runs the same number of buses.
In Maine, the number of students enrolled in public schools goes down by hundreds every year, and the presence of charter schools has increased the competition for those students. During the 2006-07 school year there were 199,567; last year, there were 184,367, according to the Department of Education.
“It’s fair to say that the existence of charter schools in Maine is forcing public school districts to look at how they can compete in this new marketplace,” Webster said. “If the public is showing that online education has value to it, then if we’re going to compete, we need to offer it.”