Two more charter schools given go-ahead

Posted Feb. 05, 2013, at 3:27 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2013, at 5:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Charter School Commission approved two new charter school applications Tuesday after a discussion about the need for school choice.

The Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray and Harpswell Coastal Academy are the fourth and fifth charter schools to be approved in Maine since the Legislature legalized them in 2011. Both schools received strong support from the commission during votes in Augusta on Tuesday afternoon. The Harpswell application garnered a unanimous vote while the tally for Fiddlehead was 6-1.

Commission member William Shuttleworth said his vote against Fiddlehead was because he questioned the need for it in light of the high quality of Gray-New Gloucester-area schools.

“The job of education is the wise, equitable distribution of finite resources,” said Shuttleworth. “At the end of the day there are only so many resources that one can apply. I’m not convinced that this is a place that needs it most. It has a world-class school right across the road. … Geography really prevents me from approving it.”

Gray-area schools, which are part of SAD 15, are among a handful of Maine schools embracing proficiency-based learning, which essentially means that students advance at their own pace through individualized curricula designed especially for them. It’s a model favored by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who toured Gray-New Gloucester Middle School in June 2012 to highlight its cutting-edge programs.

The Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences, which aims to eventually serve up to 140 students, will be located near the school.

In response to Shuttleworth’s comments, other members of the Charter School Commission said that just because the local public school is performing well, a charter school in the same area is not automatically excluded. Commissioner Heidi Sampson said she was disappointed with “condescension” she said she and Fiddlehead officials experienced during the application process from public school officials.

“If SAD 15 is so wonderful, let it stand on its own,” she said. “For the parent who is engaged in their child’s education, choice is necessary. Fiddlehead is a viable, exciting option for parents in the region.”

Commissioner John Bird agreed and explained his votes in favor of both charter schools on Tuesday’s agenda as being about supporting school choice.

“I think it’s important that choices be there,” he said. “The town has a very fine public school. Everything I know says it’s a very strong system. Fiddlehead has taken that into account.”

The charter commission has already approved the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School, both of which opened in September 2012, as well as the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, which is conditionally approved to open this fall.

Tuesday’s votes came amid significant pressure from Gov. Paul LePage for the commission to approve more charter schools. Last month, after the commission rejected four out of five applications before it, including two for virtual charter schools that would exist primarily online, LePage called on the commission members to resign. It was the second time since last year that LePage has made that request, though commission members have said they have no intention of doing so.

Harpswell Coastal Academy, which is the only charter school from a crop of applicants last fall to receive preliminary approval from the commission, aims to attract between 40 and 80 sixth- and ninth-grade students in its first year with a focus on project-based learning involving the coastal economy. Its application was approved unanimously Tuesday with some commissioners saying its education program is among the strongest they’ve seen.

Maine’s Charter School Law was passed by the Legislature in 2011 and allows up to 10 charter schools in the first decade under the new law, though Gov. Paul LePage is preparing legislation to lift that cap.

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