Testimony in support of LD 1736 and implementing a public virtual learning collaborative

February 4, 2014

Senator Millett, Representative MacDonald, esteemed colleagues on the Education Committee, I am Brian Hubbell, representing House District 35, Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, and Mount Desert and I am here before you as the lead co-sponsor and earnest supporter of LD 1736, A Resolve, To Create a State-run Virtual Academy Providing Maine Students with Access to Online Learning through Their Existing School Districts.

Like you, for many years I have been alternately excited and concerned about the prospects of virtual learning in Maine.

Back sometime in the early 90s, I registered for an adult ed class at Narraguagus High School that gave me access to a bewildering frontier of DOS-based distance learning and for many happy evenings I wandered essentially at random through a variety of remedial Latin exercises with no apparent beginning or end.

Over the past few years, as a school board member and a parent, I’ve observed intelligent and highly-motivated students who had tapped out local high school offerings flounder with frustratingly limited success to navigate advanced independent virtual classes on their own without the association or assistance of live teachers.

Most recently, in MEPRI’s objective evaluation of charter schools, we have received confirmation of our concerns via the 2011 CREDO study about the subpar performance of virtual charter schools.

And yet, there is no doubt that the proven success of blended learning offers real promise and compelling incentive for Maine to implement a thoughtful and comprehensive model for collaborative virtual learning.

So, with gratitude to Senator Langley, I am deeply committed to the success of this bill because I believe that Maine students need us to provide them with an effective platform for online learning.  And I believe that we can learn much from the proven successes of public virtual collaboratives in our neighboring New England States.

By broadening blended learning opportunities for all students — not only those who are struggling or limited by traditional classes but also those who are home-schooled or traveling — a state virtual academy would serve many more students than a virtual charter school.  Most importantly, students would benefit from having a Maine teacher available to them at both ends of the wire.

We are offered unique opportunity here to build on the successes both of Vermont’s Virtual Learning Collaborative and New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy.  New Hampshire has expressed interest in exploring a partnership with Maine which offers promising opportunity for quick implementation.

Beyond that, this bill offers Maine the chance to thoughtfully develop a truly collaborative model that suits a wide range of students and a promising way for Maine school to efficiently share good practices in effective distance learning.

Please join me in support of this bill.

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2 thoughts on “Testimony in support of LD 1736 and implementing a public virtual learning collaborative”

  1. Dear Rep. Hubbell,

    I support your interest in creating a blended learning model for Maine, based on (or guided by) either the VT school or the NH VLACS models. The NH model is actually a charter school, with an independent board holding the charter, and with the NH Dept of Ed as the authorizing agency that issued and will review the charter. I really like that model. It creates a blended school experience for nearly all of the 9000 enrollees. (There are a small number of fully virtual students.) I fear that Maine will not follow either of those VT or NH models– allowing a truly independent charter board to oversee the blended model. I worry that it will become the captive of “stakeholders” in Maine, with mandatory governing seats going to representatives of the MSBA, MSS, MPA, and the MEA, and perhaps the UMS or private university teacher education programs. Or overseen directly by the MDOE. Such a board or oversight agency could condemn the effort to mediocrity. NH has a truly good model, funded with startup funds from Gates, Federal sources, and state monies. Can such be available in Maine?

    Look carefully at the MEPRI report on virtuals. (It is a very good, honest report.) Better yet, see the NEPC study and the CREDO (Stanford) studies on which the MEPRI conclusions are based. The Maine Charter School Commission did study those reports, and, based on their findings, has created limitations on the operations of a Maine virtual charter school that most states did not impose on the virtual schools described in those studies.

    It is erroneous to read Colin Woodard’s Portland Press Herald article on the virtual schools as painting both K12 Education and Connections Learning equally. All of the national scandals include K12 as one of the culprits in “churning” students and falsifying data. (K12 was not alone, but has the lion’s share of the problems.) No study, to my knowledge, has found any falsification or wrongdoing on the part of Connections Education. Yes, over the past 6 years full-time virtual schools have underperformed the best charter schools, and are also sub-average for most public schools. But with the exception of mathematics scores, a few virtual providers have scored at or above state averages in reading at all grade levels.

    I am no longer a member on the Charter Commission and so I do not know how it will vote on the two virtual applications before it. I know that members still have concerns about how much control will be delegated to the Education Management Organization for-profit companies that will supply curriculum.

    But the curricula that they supply is pretty good in and of itself. It is the quality of the teacher delivery and the local oversight that is at issue. That is a local governing board and local administrative issue that the Commission will have to assess and make a decision about. Do the local boards delegate too much control to their respective EMO?

    NH VLACS buys its curriculum, largely from Florida Virtual Academy, acting as an Education Service Provider, but maintains strong control over teacher hiring, student enrollment, and teacher and student accountability for course completion. (The teacher only gets full payment for each enrolled student when the student completes the course. If the student drops out or doesn’t complete, neither VLACS or the teacher gets the full state subsidy. The VLACS Board and administration has strict hiring standards and excellent teacher training. )

    Present Maine law doesn’t require that level of teacher and school accounability in any regular public school or blended offering (do you think that either MSMA or MEA would accept this?), but with the present performance contract requirement-setting ability that the MCSC has within the charter law, the Commission has the next best thing in terms of monitoring a virtual school. It can place the school on notice after two years of poor performance, and can cancel a charter contract at the end of year three.

    I worry that Maine will continue to lag further and further behind in the areas of virtual and blended learning if your bill creates another bureaucratically heavy task force to create a school and at the same time cuts off the ability for any other alternative to be tried before 2017.

    Much of the superintendent and school board opposition to virtual schools is the fear that home schoolers will come out of the woodwork and slam local budgets with costs that have never previously been part of the public school enrollment. I think that this fear is partially over-blown for two reasons: 1) most homeschoolers disdain the virtual charters because they are forced to follow a 180-day schedule, enroll full time, take the standard public school curriculum content, and take state tests; all of which are anathema to most of them. 2) The Commission has put strong limits on how many students any virtual school could enroll. However, the fear about the impact of unanticipated costs from virtual school enrollees from any corner of the state is a genuine and real concern, especially in very rural, small districts. Commissioner Rier has a plan to ameliorate that, the same one proposed last year by Commr. Bowen, but rejected by the Ed Committee. It could be resurrected.

    Blended learning, virtual learning– however it is implemented, costs money. Most of it will be funded from cost-shifting one way or another, away from stand and deliver in a brick-and-mortar classroom to a computer or tablet screen, either in a classroom or in the home.

    Thank you,

    Dick Barnes

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