The Bangor City Council went into protective mode recently when it moved closer to approving a six-month moratorium on charter schools in the city. Councilors make good points about the possibility of a 420-student charter school drawing valuable resources and youth away from James F. Doughty and William S. Cohen schools, Bangor High School and John Bapst Memorial High School, but they also shouldn’t underestimate the area’s education scene.
Under Maine’s 2011 law allowing charter schools in the state, the Maine Charter School Commission is authorized to approve 10 charter schools within a 10-year transition period. Five so far have been approved, and none have been in the Bangor area. A previous proposal for a charter school in Bangor called Queen City Academy, which would have served grades 6-12, was denied because it wasn’t clear how the school would be financed. But the school said it planned to re-apply.
A six-month moratorium on charter schools isn’t going to ruin all future chances of a charter school in the Bangor area, and we understand councilors want time to speak with Gov. Paul LePage and Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen about their concerns in hopes that state law might be reviewed to potentially find improvements — though we’ll be surprised if the meeting propels any changes.
We also agree with councilors and the state commission that, in addition to the financing problem, the proposal for Queen City Academy didn’t make sense for Bangor. It intended to stress science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings, even though Bangor’s public schools already have a STEM academy. It intended to collaborate with area universities and colleges and provide a career-oriented college preparatory program, according to its initial application. But those goals are nothing new.
Yet, we don’t want Bangor councilors to pass moratoriums in perpetuity to deny all chances of a charter school. In order to be authorized, a charter school will have to prove its viability to the commission, and Bangor already has some top-performing institutions. It will be difficult for a future charter school to compete, but perhaps one could find a way to help disadvantaged youth or focus on a special area of study, as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Good Will-Hinckley did with agriculture. Charter schools should aim to fill a need that current public schools are not filling, with a focus on how to best benefit students.
Councilors say they are not trying to ban charter schools forever. But a stall tactic is easy to continue. One moratorium should not lead to multiple moratoriums. Councilors should also make clear what they want to accomplish in six months.
At the same time, state government must do its part to ensure the continued integrity of the charter school commission. Members are appointed by the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. LePage has not helped matters by berating charter school commission members and asking them in January to resign when they didn’t approve as many applications as he apparently wanted. The commission must retain its independence for municipalities to trust in its decision-making process.
And potential charter school developers might ease tensions by working with school district and municipal leaders to show how they intend to supplement current educational offerings and that they all have the same goals in mind — to benefit students.
So far, Bangor councilors’ plan for a moratorium — on which a public hearing will be held June 17 — appears to be aimed at one formerly proposed charter school, not charter schools in general. The question is whether city leaders will know when to cede their control and open the door to more educational offerings. If the moratorium is the start of a longer ban on charter schools, it should be defeated. If it’s not, councilors should still specify to the public what they intend to accomplish in the six-month breathing period.