GUEST COLUMN

Why Maine needs charter schools

Posted May 24, 2011, at 10:20 p.m.

Maine should permit public charter schools. Why?

Not because our public schools are a disaster now and this new kind of public school would solve the problem. Maine’s public schools now do fail a lot of our kids, but we are not like Baltimore or Washington, D.C., or the California inner cities we see on TV or in “Waiting for Superman.”

Maine should permit public charter schools because doing so will make our own district schools better. There is always room for that.

No need here to go into how this works, but facts show that it does. What is the proof? That states that have tried public charter schools don’t change their minds. That’s 40 states and the District of Columbia now.

We are behind the curve on this social change. In those 41 jurisdictions, there are 5,400-plus public charter schools serving 1.7 million kids. There are different amounts of experience in different states — nearly 20 years in Minnesota. The 41 jurisdictions are controlled by different parties and have different political tendencies. Once a state has tried charter schools, their varied politicians have tinkered with the details, but they have never changed their minds that public charter schools are something they and their constituents want.

And a lot of these schools are in rural areas, too, like Coos County, N.H., and Idaho.

Public charter schools introduce more options into the public school system. Pupils and their parents like that. Nationwide, public charter schools are way over-subscribed. There are another 400,000-plus kids whose parents are trying to get them into a charter school and can’t. That’s partly because it’s hard work starting a new school, expanding it and making it work. It’s partly because politicians don’t want to shake up the tradition-bound district schools too much too quickly. It’s further proof of what Maine should do.

More proof? In states where we have data, teachers feel the same way. Public charter schools don’t have nearly enough positions for all the teachers who want to teach in them. Teachers know that charter schools can provide a good teaching environment, even if their leaders sometimes don’t.

It’s hard for vested interests to accept changes to the status quo. Public charter schools would mean modest change for our many superintendents; most are opponents, though some clever ones see the educational possibilities. They see innovations that are working where public charter schools have been tried. Maine is still stuck in the dwindling band of resisters with Kentucky and Alabama.

The bill before our Legislature now, LD 1553, has a further advantage over many other schemes for improving our schools. It doesn’t increase the tax bill. It has been crafted for Maine families and towns and benefits from 20 years of experience in other states.

When this bill becomes law, Maine’s district schools won’t be attacked, but they will get a nudge, and it will be a constructive nudge.

There are lots of things we should do to improve our public schools. Some have to wait until we can afford them. We can afford public charter schools. Maine should pass LD 1553 and permit public charter schools now.

William I. Jones is a retired World Bank economist and former government professor at Oberlin College who grows and sells Christmas trees and blueberries in Hope.

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