June 23, 2018
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Political mailer makes inaccurate claims about charter schools

By Stephen Bowen

It’s the height of the silly season when politicians and others with points of view and axes to grind say and write things that make little sense in order to get the people they want elected or not elected. So I probably should not be so surprised.

In fact, in the scheme of things, the attack message against a politician running for state office in my own district may not be as mean or as ridiculous as many we have seen on both the state and national level.

But I am responsible for representing the state’s education policy and agenda on behalf of the LePage administration. And it offends me to see a political mailer that so blatantly and knowingly mischaracterizes the public charter school law passed by the Legislature in 2011. Especially because it was put out by people who participate regularly in the process, who know the truth and who willfully refuse to give the truth a place in its campaign of deception.

I am speaking of a postcard sent by Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a political group that this year received 100 percent of its funding — $171,220 — from the National Education Association, which is parent organization to the Maine Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state. The postcard accuses Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, of “selling out” Maine’s students by voting to “privatize our schools.”

The assertion is more than ludicrous — it is a lie. Maine’s charter school law, LD 1553, defines the very precise terms under which public charter schools operate. Charter schools are by definition in law public — not private — schools that have more flexibility than traditional public schools over decisions concerning curriculum and instruction, scheduling, staffing and finance. But, they are accountable to the terms of the contracts, or charters, that authorize their existence and the academic standards to which all other public schools are accountable. And, unlike other public schools, they are closed if they don’t meet the needs of students.

The Maine Charter School Commission, a public body, as well as local school boards, are authorized to charter a school. The law, approved by a significant and bipartisan majority in the House and Senate, reflects a growing understanding among Mainers that no one school can be all things to all students. And that it is our responsibility to help families find the right educational environment for their children.

Of course, reasonable people can debate that. Not up for debate is this assertion of “privatizing” schools. Is it called “privatizing” when public groups of parents and neighbors come together seeking choices for their children? Also the postcard talks about “these virtual schools” when the authors know very well that none of Maine’s current or conditionally approved charter schools is a virtual school.

The postcard ends with the silliest argument of all: “The more students enrolled, the more they collect.” At least that statement is true. In fact, this is how all public schools work — funding is based on the number of students. It is hard to imagine a system that worked any other way.

I am not here to defend a candidate for political office in Maine. I am writing because we cannot possibly have an honest debate about the merits of education policy if we can’t even agree to be honest about the facts.

Stephen Bowen is commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.

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