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Questions Raised About Pearson as Provider for New Maine Virtual School

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By guest blogger Michele Molnar


News that Maine's first virtual charter school operator is owned by Pearson PLC, the London-based worldwide education company, is drawing criticism from those skeptical of the role the for-profit entity will have in the state.

"Multinational giant set to run first virtual school in Maine," announced a headline on the in-depth story that The Portland Press-Herald ran this weekend about the relationship between Connections Education LLC, a Baltimore, MD-based virtual education provider, and Pearson, the company that bought Connections  in 2011. 

Connections Educationwas selected by the state's charter school commission to operate Maine Connections Academy.

"Some educators worry about outsourcing control" of the school, the paper wrote, "but supporters say a global company can reduce costs by serving so many users." The article points out that the public school will get its "curriculum, online learning platform, human resources services and, in some instances, teachers," from the company.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents to an online poll conducted by the paper said they are concerned that Maine's first virtual public school will be run by a multinational publishing and educational services company. Thirty-two percent expressed no concern. The poll, posted online next to the news story, was not conducted in a scientifically rigorous way, but it had drawn 684 responses as of today. 

Plans to create the virtual school have drawn an enthusiastic response from some quarters. The Bangor Daily News reports that some parents of homeschooled students welcome the forthcoming virtual school; in fact, families invested hours in filling out the charter school application and testifying in Augusta for the shool and the expanded choices it would offer them. These parents, some of them in rural parts of the state, wanted access to certified teachers for their children, and a wider variety of course offerings than those that are available at their local schools. 

The virtual charter school has been the source of a major battle in Maine's statehouse over the past few months. 

In February, the state's House of Representatives approved a bill that would have set up a group to evaluate the costs and feasibility of setting up a state-run virtual school, while placing a one-year moratorium on Maine's contracting with any for-profit entity to run their school.

Meanwhile on March 3, the charter school commission proceeded to unanimously approve the Maine Connections Academy, choosing to enter into contract negotiations with Connections Education from Baltimore, which runs online programs in 23 states.

Three days later, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted 24-11 in favor of the measure that would have allowed more time before establishing the academy. Almost immediately, Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill that would have created the moratorium, giving the green light for contract negotiations to continue with Connections Education. 

Barring any other setbacks, the school is poised to open in the fall, and would eventually serve up to 750 students in grades 7-12.

The new school's board of directors is still negotiating its contract with Connections Eduation, the for-profit provider. When Maine Connections Academy opens, it will have 270 openings for seventh to ninth graders. 

The proposed plan for the academy would involve providing a teacher in every subject, with students learning from that teacher online at least once a week. Class-like interaction would occur virtually, via a chat and questions. Students would be expected to do homework and compete online lessons on their own, and take assessments to show proficiency and progress. Teachers could be accessed via email, phone or videoconference. 

This blog post has been corrected to reflect that Connections Education, not Connections Learning by Pearson, was selected by Maine's charter commission.

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