June 18, 2018
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School choice will make Maine more student-friendly, commissioner says

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told a cheering group of charter school and school choice supporters at the State House that the LePage administration is preparing several school choice bills for consideration this session.

“Our goal is to build a system that is built around kids,” he said. “You are going to hear from us very shortly an announcement on digital learning, we want to do some things related to that. All the states are struggling to figure out how digital learning will fit. We got a lot of stuff coming.”

Bowen said his department already has a bill before the Legislature to fix some problems with the charter school law passed last year. He said there will be legislation expanding school choice introduced within a few weeks.

“Having school choice opportunities is a core to our reforms,” Bowen said.

Gov. Paul LePage in his State of the State address Tuesday evening pointed to one of the choice goals, better access to the state’s technical education high schools by students who want to learn trades such as plumbing, electrical work and motor vehicle repair.

“As we put students first, we must recognize that some students learn best working with their hands,“ LePage said during the speech. “I want to increase access to and improve upon Maine’s career and technical education system.”

Bowen said legislation to assure that access will be part of the increased school options measures that will be proposed this session by the governor. He said the current “industrial” model of education no longer works and the legislation will move from that to a system that is based on individual students.

“We no longer can have the sort of assembly line where the kids are the widgets and we roll them down the assembly line,” he said.

Carol Weston is the Maine director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that organized the event at the State House which brought together supporters of charter schools and other school choice options. She said it was a “town hall” type of meeting to allow all of the advocates of school options, from charter schools to home schooling, to get together and exchange ideas.

“We all can agree that we want our students to be successful and to be graduating from high school prepared for life,” Weston, a former teacher, said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, was the sponsor of the charter school law last year. He said the meeting and the wide number of groups attending the session were an indication of broad support across the state for school choice.

“For all Maine students who are sitting in classrooms feeling like they are square pegs being driven into round holes, you now have choices in Maine,” he said.

But whether the choice of a charter school will be an option this year is up in the air. At Monday’s hearing on the Education Department’s bill to change the charter school law, several concerns were raised, including whether the rules needed to allow charter schools to start operating will be completed in time for schools to open in September.

“Our goal, right now, is to have a charter [school] available to open up in September,” said James Banks, chairman of the state Charter School Commission. “I didn’t say we were going to do it, but we are now trying to prepare ourselves so we are in a position to accomplish that. I am not sure we are.”

Bowen also told the meeting that the state has been ranked as having the best charter school law in the nation, but that ranking is in dispute.

“Maine’s new charter law is ranked No. 1 after passing a strong charter law that is aligned with the NAPCS’ model charter law, although it is yet to be seen how the implementation or enforcement of the law plays out,” said Ursula Wright, interim president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in a statement releasing the group’s annual ranking of states.

But another national charter school group, The Center for Education Reform, put out a statement saying Maine’s law in not the No. 1 law in the nation.

“The law enacted is a modest attempt at creating new, public schools that are opened by choice, held accountable for results and free to innovate,” said Alison Consoletti, vice president of research at the center. “Maine’s law has many limitations that jeopardize its effectiveness if not improved.”

The Education Committee has yet to consider the changes to the charter school law in work session.

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