The Smart Money: The education of the state of Maine Part Two

Posted Wednesday, February 13, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The education of the state of Maine Part Two

by Gina Hamilton

One of Gov. Paul LePage's goals, according to what he has said since his campaign, and reiterated at last week's State of the State address, is to provide different types of education for children, citing himself as an example, who were unable to make it in the regular public system.

Sometimes called charter schools, these are schools that tend to have a particular focus, such as the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM), in Limestone.  It was opened in 1995, after Loring Air Force Base closed down, and the Defense Department helped to redevelop the property.  It is very remote, so the campus is a residential school, with dormitories located in the former elementary school.  It can serve 140 students, although its current enrollment is only 105. 

MSSM has a fantastic reputation.  They have a very small student to teacher ratio (10:1).  They are always listed in charts of the best public high schools.  They can request and receive assistance from the University System to help with guest lecturers and curriculum support.  But the costs of running the program are high ... they have student dormitories and provide room and board, as well as summer programs ... and they serve a little more than a hundred, albeit very bright, students. 

Meanwhile, according to the state Department of Education, there are more than 201,000 students in public schools in Maine.

Charter schools like MSSM, and the new Good Will Hinkley School (focusing on natural sciences in Fairfield) may have a role to play in the education mix, but they are not and cannot be a substitute for quality local public education.  They don't serve enough students to make them any more than an interesting option for very bright, talented kids, and they tend to focus on high school students. 

LePage would like to see more charter schools, and a few (preferably more in urban areas where more students can take advantage of them) might be appropriate.  Unfortunately, the funding for charter schools and public schools comes from the same pot, the Department of Education budget. 

According to a Maine Center for Economic Policy study, just released this week, Maine's education budget has been cut dramatically per pupil since the recession began in 2008, when compared to other New England states. After adjusting for inflation, Maine has cut state aid to public schools by $468 per student, or 8.8 percent, since fiscal year 2008 when the recession hit. Over that same time frame Vermont cut spending by $70 per student, while every other state in New England increased education funding by $100 per student or more.  LePage's biennial budget proposal for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 would result in an additional cut per student of $66 when adjusted for inflation.

Where is the money for new, attractive charter schools in this scenario?  Unfortunately, LePage has a suggestion ... and there may be more to it than meets the eye.

LePage is trying very hard to get online charter schools approved in Maine.  That is, children would stay at home and do work over the internet, with an instructor who may or may not be credentialed to work in the state.  At least one of the charter academies, K12 Inc., donated heavily to LePage's election campaign. 

The two pushing hardest to break into the Maine market (K12 Inc. and Connections Academy) are both out of state, for-profit corporations that have dismal track records in other states, such as Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado.  Both make money two ways -- from tuition paid by the states for the children they send to the online schools, and from selling the textbooks or online programs that the children must use.  They do not use the state's choice for textbooks, they use their own.  And they publish the textbooks.

The student to teacher ratio is high ... 75:1 in a Virginia Virtual School District.  Students who are in the online system do worse on state assessments than students in real schools, and they also have a high dropout rate.  For example, in Colorado, only 12 percent of virtual academy students graduated on time, as opposed to 72 percent of brick and mortar students.

And yet the cost of an online education may be higher than a brick-and-mortar education, especially as former virtual students return to class and must be educated again.

Both Connections Academy and K12 Inc. tried again to get their schools certified in Maine last year; they failed, but LePage desperately wants this option, and will try again to push it through the Legislature this year.

For a very limited number of remote students, or those who cannot attend regular school for disciplinary reasons, or because of illness, disability, or temporary injury, the school system can and should develop its own "online academy" to make sure that every student gets an appropriate education.  However, the for-profit online academies are not the way to go.


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