Charter schools proposal resurfaces

Posted April 19, 2009, at 8:41 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to allow the establishment of charter schools in Maine has resurfaced and is expected to be taken up by a legislative panel later this month.

LD 1438, “An Act to Permit Charter Schools in Maine” sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, is similar to the measure that failed to pass muster when debated in 2006.

Lincolnville resident Dr. Judith D. Jones of the Maine Association for Public Charter Schools said the time was right to revisit the subject because President Obama is a strong supporter of charter schools in public education and has promised to double the federal grant funds for planning and startup expenses for new and converted charter schools. The Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs will review the matter at the end of the month, she said.

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“We really see this as an expansion of the public education system in Maine,” Jones said. “The whole goal of state policy is to help kids succeed, and we are just not doing as well as we’d like to in Maine. We need to expand options and find new ways of adding to their needs.”

Although the federal government would provide grants of up to $150,000 for startup costs, under the legislation the state Department of Education would be required to provide financing for each student who moves from a conventional public school to a public charter school.

That so-called “funding follows the child” concept means public schools would lose their subsidy for each child who transfers to a charter school, a situation the department and many school superintendents found problematic during the 2006 discussion on the issue. Officials also were concerned about taking on new programs during a period when the department and school districts were dealing with consolidation and staffing issues.

This time around, however, the department supports the goals of the charter school proposal. Department of Education Communications Director David Connerty-Marin said the state was not concerned about the “funding follows the child” aspect of the proposal because of the added support of the federal government and guarantees of local control within the bill.

Connerty-Marin said any group that wants to form a charter school would have to gain the support of the existing education system before they could establish a program. He said the federal government was pushing for assurances that states allow flexibility on charter schools and the department now was willing to do that.

“In this bill the charter schools have to be controlled by the university or a public school system,” Connerty-Marin said. “Private or nonprofits cannot do it on their own. They need an authentic public entity for oversight.”

Connerty-Marin said the department was committed to helping “at-risk” students and that charter schools could meet their needs in some cases. He said a small percentage of money would remain with the governing school district in cases where students enroll in charter schools.

“There may be some opportunities to serve at-risk students in unique ways,” he said.

Jones, a sociologist who helped establish a charter school program in Washington, D.C., during the early 1990s, said Maine is one of 10 states that do not permit charter schools. She has been a member of the charter school movement since moving to Maine 11 years ago.

She said that about 25 percent of high school ninth-graders do not graduate in the required four years. Of the 75 percent who do graduate, many lack the skills to succeed in jobs or in college, requiring remedial training at great expense of time and money for students, parents and employers.

Jones said the federal government would not provide funding to any state without charter school legislation. The bill calls for a 10-year pilot program that would allow a maximum of 20 schools to be established over that period. The Department of Education would be required to review the schools performance every four years.

“It’s a voluntary model. If a community doesn’t have a need for these schools, no one will start one,” Jones said. “We would like to see superintendents who are interested in alternative methods to access the federal money to convert or create an alternative.”

wgriffin@bangordailynews.net

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