Panel endorses ‘innovative schools,’ nixes charter facilities

Posted March 15, 2010, at 10:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee endorsed a bill Monday authorizing local education officials to create special “innovative schools” but not charter schools as the state competes for additional federal funding.

The Baldacci administration had introduced the bill, LD 1801, as a way to enable the formation of autonomous public schools with more flexibility in terms of curriculum, scheduling and staffing decisions. These “innovative schools,” as the bill calls them, might be better positioned to receive funding in the federal “Race to the Top” program.

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The bill specifically prohibits the formation of charter schools, which, while authorized by the state, operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

While the “innovative schools” plan won support from the majority of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, much of the Monday debate focused on whether Maine should allow charter schools.

“Maybe through competition with traditional schools, it might make everybody better,” said Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford.

If passed by the full Legislature, the bill would enable school districts to create autonomous schools with different curricula, staff selection, school calendars and student and teacher assessment processes than traditional schools.

The policies and practices at the “innovative schools” could exceed — but not conflict with — existing statutory or regulatory requirements for public schools, however. Charter school supporters have said that language removes any real autonomy from the new schools.

Several committee members proposed to amend the bill to include language authorizing the establishment of public charter schools in the state. The Legislature rejected a charter school bill last year after considerable debate.

Heather Perry, superintendent of the Union 60 school district in Greenville, urged the committee to support the charter schools proposal, arguing she believed it would help her district compete for the federal funding.

Maine sat out the first round of competition for “Race to the Top” funding but plans to vie for a share of the second-round money available later this year.

Perry said she believes charter schools provide choice, freedom, accountability and competition, all of which she added are underpinnings of American society. She also said rural districts, such as hers, have no reason to fear charter schools.

“I think ‘innovative schools’ would be good, but I think the bill falls short of the possibilities,” Perry said.

But the charter schools proposal garnered only four votes from the committee. The original bill was endorsed by eight lawmakers, while one committee member cast a vote of “ought not to pass.”

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also expressed concerns about communities that have to reabsorb — and therefore pay for — a charter school that failed to generate adequate funding after the initial federal grants ran out.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, said she believes the state is on the right track and that the “innovative schools” bill would help Maine compete. Schneider said she understood charter school proponents’ desire to get parents more involved in the education system and encourage innovative teaching methods, but parents already have that opportunity.

“There are alternate options, but people don’t show up to the school board meetings where their voices can be heard,” Schneider said.

The issue will now head to the full Legislature for consideration.

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