Why a moratorium on virtual charter schools is integral to providing Maine students with access to online learning through their existing schools

27 February 2014
Representative Brian Hubbell, Bar Harbor
On motion to indefinitely postpone House Amendment ‘B’ to Committee Amendment ‘A’ to LD 1736

Mr. Speaker, Women and Men of the House:

I realize that, at this moment, it appears that the good Representative from Augusta and I are standing on opposite sides in this chamber.

But, Mr. Speaker, I want to assure you that I regularly share his frustration at what it takes here to advance good policy by forging alliances of variously committed and reluctant interests.

I do know that many across the spectrum in this House have real reservations about the unequivocably poor record of virtual charter schools in other states and who doubt whether virtual schools represent a wise and effective use of increasingly scarce public funding.

But I also know that many with those reservations also struggle along with the Representative from Augusta with sincere misgivings about whether a temporary pause in the implementation of virtual charter schools really advances the best interest of Maine’s students.

Because I believe those misgivings deserve an honest airing, I thank the Representative from Augusta for putting this matter before the House for consideration and I will do my best to directly explain why the moratorium is integral to the bipartisan comprehensive merits of this bill.

But first let me remind the members that the first phase of this bill immediately makes available content from the same providers that propose to serve Maine’s virtual charters schools via New Hampshire’s established virtual learning academy. This content will become available in September to all Maine students, not just those who see virtual charters as their only option.

Second, let me restate that we don’t have unlimited public resources and that it is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that public education dollars are spent as effectively as possible to the benefit of all Maine students.

Third, I implore those, like the good Representative from Biddeford — who have argued here passionately and forcefully that competition between educational options can drive educational improvement — to recognize the evidence of progress that is before them and which arguably validates their own position.

Mr. Speaker, three years ago, when this body was debating the implementation of charter schools in this state, how many here would have predicted that we would now have local school superintendents like Ken Coville from RSU 74 passionately leading by example and advancing a state-wide virtual learning exchange to share blended virtual content between all Maine students — in public schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschoolers?

How many here would have expected the MEA to recognize and commend the success of innovative state-run virtual academies like those in New Hampshire, Vermont and Ohio?

How many here would have expected to find Maine School Management proposing to expend its own local resources to develop a partnership with a charter school in New Hampshire?

As a state, we have called on our public schools to innovate and broaden opportunities for Maine students. With this initiative, they are responding.

Ironically, in the subsequent three years since Maine introduced charter schools, the frame of the status quo has shifted to the point where those throwing sand into the gears on this bill are the representatives now protecting a different set of hard-won special entitlements.

Most disappointing to me — two years after the Chief Executive’s order to expand digital learning to all Maine students — was hearing testimony from staff at the Department of Education that they currently doubt their own ability to implement such a state-wide vision. despite the successful examples in states that are moving forward elsewhere.

So I believe this moratorium is necessary because it provides incentives in both direction to move us off a current, different status quo.

We’ve had two years under the Chief Executive’s Executive Order to give all Maine students broad access to digital learning and two years later that promise remains unrealized.

Here, our obligation remains to ensure that all Maine students have access to the promise of expanded digital learning — even those whose parents lack the luxury of serving as full time learning coaches within the virtual charter programs.

We need to be able to answer the blended learning needs of the community of all Maine students, not merely offer digital learning via isolated virtual charters and then empower public schools and their taxpayers to do nothing more than foot the bill

Unfortunately the moratorium is necessary to bring together the stakeholders to move digital learning forward in Maine. This bill already has brought together productive efforts from the school boards, superintendents, and public school teachers that some here have characterized as reluctant defenders of the old status quo.

But to be successful we need even broader commitment from the Department of Education whose representatives have told us that they lack the ability on their own to implement a digital learning exchange similar to what is moving forward successfully in other states like New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ohio.

Women and Men of the House, change is hard and it takes both leadership and partnership.

It’s time to light a fire to reenergize the Department of Education’s efforts on digital learning for all. This bipartisan support behind this bill recognizes the value both the promise of digital learning and the value of providing an incentive to motivate real accomplishment.

We owe it to all the students across this state — on Frenchboro, Islesford and Matinicus, in Calais, Jonesport, Biddeford, Sanford, Auburn, Augusta Skowhegan, Embden, Greenville, Houlton, in Caribou — we owe it to all Maine students to move forcefully and deliberately, comprehensively and equitably, to realize the promise of the Chief Executive’s original exectuve order and expand the digital learning opportunities for all Maine students.

Please join me in support of preserving that comprehensive effort in the current bill.