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Charter schools not the answer to Maine’s school woes

Posted June 22, 2011, at 1:27 p.m.
Last modified June 22, 2011, at 5:27 p.m.

Please, someone tell me why charter schools are being presented as a solution to answer problems facing Maine’s schools? We don’t need more schools. We need more money to fix and maintain Maine’s existing schools. How creating new “charter” schools remedies this bigger problem just baffles me.

Sure, flirting with the idea of creating a new charter school is enticing and exciting. But, Maine schools are already hard hit with financial burdens and losses. Really, does it make sense to pull funds from public schools to educate a select few? Is it equitable?

As I understand, charter schools were never intended to be replacements for public schools. According to Diane Ravitch in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” “Charters were supposed to be research and development laboratories for discovering better ways of educating hard-to-educate children. They were not intended to siphon away the most motivated students and families in the poorest communities, but to address some of the public school’s urgent problems.”

Keeping existing schools in Maine functioning is an urgent problem. More money needs to be devoted to school construction, teacher professional development and access to technology. Really, how does a charter school address these fundamental issues facing Maine schools?

It doesn’t.

Charter schools are really no different from local public schools options. And according to research released by Stanford University in 2010, over a third (37 percent) deliver learning results that are worse than traditional public schools. Just look at the Ross Global Academy in New York City. The charter school scored in the bottom 1 percent of all schools in the city. In addition to this drop in test scores, it has operational instability with a 40 percent teacher turnover in four years. Just last year, 77 percent of their teachers left. Unable to diagnose a reason for the high turnover, the Ross Global Academy will not get a renewal of its charter. Can Maine afford to make a similar charter school mistake?

Couldn’t money used to fund a charter school be used for teacher’s professional development in existing schools? What about funding school renovation and construction? For the life of me, I don’t get why Maine’s legislators think opening and funding charter schools will solve or address the real problems facing Maine schools.

And, frankly, I don’t like the idea of local tax dollars being used to pay for a charter school. Let’s work with what we have before creating a whole new set of problems. All you have to do is look at the mess school consolidation created.

What would happen if a charter school ended up with the same problems as the Ross Global Academy? Who pays for that mistake? What about charter school debt? What happens if it closes? Why should local school districts pay front money to open a charter school? Should we have to wait five years to shut down a failing charter schools? These are the questions that LD 1553, charter school legislation, raises for me.

Perhaps a more honest question is to ask how Maine can improve its existing public schools. Property taxes are a regressive way to fund Maine’s schools. It has been said before, but Maine needs to look at school funding alternatives. Other states have higher sales taxes they use for school funding.

Betsy Saltonstall is a former school board representative in Rockport.

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