Bill to allow Maine’s first charter schools approved

Posted June 28, 2011, at 9:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislation creating Maine’s first charter schools is headed to Gov. Paul LePage’s desk for his signature.

After years of failed attempts, advocates for charter schools finally succeeded in receiving legislative support for allowing public schools that must meet state and federal academic standards but are given more flexibility in curriculum, budgeting and other areas.

Both the House and Senate voted without debate on Tuesday to approve a bill authorizing the creation of up to 10 charter schools in Maine over the next decade.

A State Charter School Commission will be responsible for authorizing the new schools. And the legislation approved Tuesday, LD 1553, imposes enrollment limitations on new charter schools during the first three years to prevent enrollment losses at nearby traditional schools.

LePage, a strong proponent of charter schools, is expected to sign LD 1553 during a public ceremony on Wednesday morning.

Bill sponsor Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, said he believes the 10-year, 10-school pilot program is a good first step that will allow the state to evaluate whether charter schools are working. Maine also has the advantage of learning from the experiences of the dozens of other states where they are already in place.

“Individual education is what everybody wants to get and charter schools are a step toward that individual education,” Mason said after the vote.

By law, charter schools must be free to attend, nonreligious and subject to the same academic standards as traditional schools. They cannot discriminate against students, and enrollment is voluntary. Some charter schools also focus on a specific academic theme, such as a heavy emphasis on certain subjects.

But while supporters view charter schools as simply another form of public choice, opponents suggest that the alternative schools could siphon much-needed money or the best and brightest students from traditional schools. Many of those concerns were aired in lengthy debates several weeks ago on the House and Senate floor.

Among the most vocal critics was Sen. Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat and former co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Speaking after Tuesday’s vote, Alfond said Maine is already underfunding its K-12 schools to the tune of $400 million over the next two years based on the funding formula approved by voters.

Now, taxpayer dollars will have to flow toward new charter schools at a time when many traditional schools in Maine already are working hard with inadequate resources to innovate classroom education.

“I believe adding charters creates more bureaucracy and duplication, which is exactly what Republicans don’t want and what Gov. LePage has vetoed in other bills,” Alfond said.

The Republican takeover of the State House and Blaine House clearly helped ease passage of the charter schools legislation. But the votes in both legislative chambers show that charter schools are not strictly a partisan issue.

In fact, former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci had supported past charter school legislation that failed to survive in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Charter advocates cheered Tuesday’s votes.

“After many years of work and careful consideration, the Maine Legislature has opened the door for further innovation and creativity in public education,” Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, said in a statement.

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