Charter schools boosted by strong support on Education Committee

Posted May 22, 2011, at 5:27 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2011, at 7:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Charter schools in Maine came closer than they ever have to reality Friday when the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that would allow creation of up to 10 of them in the next 10 years.

Despite opposition by the Maine Education Association and the associations for principals, superintendents and school boards, nine of the committee’s members favor the bill sponsored by Sen. Garrett Paul Mason, R-Lisbon Falls. The latest version of the bill, LD 1553,  “An Act to Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine,” has not yet been printed after amendments were approved Friday.

Public charter schools, which have been rejected by the Maine Legislature 17 times in the past, are educational institutions that allow more flexibility on issues such as curriculum and schedule but are still held to precise standards in state and federal laws. They cannot teach religious practices and cannot discriminate against students or teachers. The concept of charter schools was supported recently by the State Board of Education. A poll by Pan Atlantic SMS in Portland, which was funded by the charter schools association, showed that more than 65 percent of Mainers support charter schools.

“With bipartisan support, the Education Committee has recognized that public charter schools can help to improve education in Maine,” said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, in a press release. “After a thorough public hearing, the Education Committee made changes to the legislation that made it stronger and builds a strong foundation for public charter schools in Maine.”

But not everyone agrees, including when it comes to the issue of whether the measure was vetted thoroughly in a public hearing. Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, said of major concern is the fact that only a couple of legislators on the Education Committee were present for most of the public hearing — and both of them were charter school supporters. Members of the House of Representatives were absent from the May 11 hearing because of a special session called to debate a controversial package of changes to the state’s health care laws, which eventually passed and has been signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage.

“It was scheduled at a time when all the representatives had to be in the House,” said Lovejoy, who along with Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portand; Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram; and Rep. Howard McFadden, R-Dennysville, voted against the measure. Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, was absent for Friday’s vote.

Aside from the scheduling of the public hearing, Lovejoy said he is also worried about the issue that has for years been at the core of the opposition to public charter schools: that they will siphon too much money away from traditional schools in Maine that already are hurting from years of reductions in state funding.

“I don’t think this is good for the state of Maine and especially for the smaller school districts,” said Lovejoy. “They’re struggling with money now and the state is cutting back. This will just divert more dollars away.”

Mason’s original bill was amended significantly during the committee process, though the final version of the bill has not yet been printed and must be approved next week by the Education Committee. Among the amendments was a limit on the number of charter schools that can be created in Maine to 10 schools in the next 10 years, with none of them opening before July 2012. The amendment also increased oversight of public charter schools by the Maine Department of Education. Also in the bill is a limit on the number of students from a given class in a given school who can attend a public charter school. Those limits are 10 percent for a district with more than 500 students and 5 percent for a district of fewer than 500 students. The charter schools would be funded by state and local dollars that follow students from their traditional schools to the charter schools.

“We recognize that this is a difficult issue for many legislators,” said Judith D. Jones, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “But the hard work of the Education Committee has answered many of the concerns that have been raised. This is an important step forward in public education.”

Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Education Committee, agreed, despite the fact that Democrats in Maine have usually been in opposition to charter schools.

“I think they’re coming, charter schools, and given that we’ve got to do it right,” said Wagner. “What I was most favorable to was a very controlled system in which we had a limit on the number of charter schools. There are a bunch of safeguards and hoops that the proponents of a charter school have to jump through. There is a need there and it can lead to innovative practices.”

The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which estimates the cost of proposed bills, said that the state-level administration of charter schools could be absorbed within existing resources by the Department of Education, but flagged potential financial losses for local school districts in a fiscal note for the original bill.

“The requirement that excepts up to 1 percent of state and local operating funds follow each student to the public charter school the student attends may result in a significant redistribution of state and local per-pupil allocation,” reads the fiscal note. “The impact to individual school units cannot be determined at this time.”

The fiscal note also states that there will be costs to the state associated with teachers who take leaves of absences to teach at charter schools, but did not estimate what those will be.

Maine’s first charter school may already be in the works. Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of the former Goodwill-Hinckley School in Fairfield, which is reinventing itself as a magnet school that will open this fall called the Maine Academy for Natural Sciences, has told the Bangor Daily News that the school would likely become a charter school if they are allowed in Maine.

The public charter schools bill still needs enactment by the Legislature and the signature of LePage, who supports the measure.

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