Charter school advocates once again hopeful

Posted May 12, 2011, at 7:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of a bill that would allow public charter schools to be created in Maine are hoping the 18th time will be the charm.

That’s how many years a similar bill has been introduced to the Legislature without being passed, but those in favor of LD 1553, “An Act to Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine” say that the climate is better now than ever for changing the law.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to support its passage, and both Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen are strong advocates of charter schools.

The publicly funded charter schools would be designed to grant more flexibility than traditional schools while still holding students to precise standards.

“We’re close,” Roger Brainerd of Union, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, said Thursday afternoon  in Augusta. “We’ve learned a lot, and we’re excited that this year, things seem to be lining up in our favor.”

He and a number of the bill’s other supporters and opponents gathered in the Cross Office Building to testify at a public hearing run by the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. At times during the hearing, only two state senators were in attendance on the panel because the Maine House of Representatives was called back into session for votes on other measures and those lawmakers had to leave.

Maine has long been one of just a few states in the nation that do not allow public charter schools, which opponents argue would have a very harmful effect on existing public schools by draining students, and the education dollars that would follow them.

“There is no doubt that this bill will hurt rural Maine,”  testified Maureen King, the president of the Maine School Board Association. “It will siphon money from small, rural schools … It is a bad bill, and a bad idea for Maine.”

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, and has bipartisan support. It is based on a model bill that was developed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and lays out a structure to create such programs in Maine.

Among other points, the legislation would qualify Maine for federal grants that are available for charter schools, it designates three bodies to authorize charter schools and it details how the programs would be funded.

In order to open, a public charter school would be authorized by either the local and regional school district, a newly formed state charter commission, or colleges and universities based in Maine that award four-year teaching degrees.

The schools would be funded by the same per-pupil allocations that towns now spend on each child, according to the Maine Association for Charter Schools. The money would follow the child to the school of his or her choice.

Roger Shaw, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and the assistant superintendent of AOS 99 in the Mars Hill area, testified that public charter schools would damage already struggling rural school districts.

“I think we need to be very concerned about initiating legislation that is going to draw funds away from public schools,” Shaw said. “I suppose there are students in my school that would probably do better in another school. But at what cost?”

Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, said the organization has opposed charter schools in Maine for many years, and testified that smaller schools — of which Maine has many — won’t be able to easily survive the loss of students to a charter school.

“We know of numerous reasons why charter schools are just a bad idea,” he said. “It turns the education of Maine students into an experiment.”

Proponents say that rural school districts would be protected by the legislation, which would prohibit charter schools from enrolling more than 10 percent of each grade in a district. They also say that small schools that struggle to survive might consider converting to charter schools instead.

Before the hearing, Brainerd said he spent 19 years as a public school educator.

“I saw within the traditional public system that it’s very difficult to sustain any kind of innovative change,” he said, adding that charter schools provide students an outlet for creativity.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all framework,” he said. “We want students to take the reins, to take ownership.”

Most of all, the parents and others who spoke passionately about passing the legislation asked lawmakers to consider the needs of individual children rather than the good of the child’s school district.

Renee Morin of Biddeford was emotional as she discussed how her academically gifted son had struggled in a public school that couldn’t accommodate him.

“We put our bright, happy son in school with the hopes and dreams of every parent,” she said. “He left angry, uninspired and lacking self-esteem.”

After her son’s “horrible” public school experience, the Morins scrimped and saved to put their two gifted daughters through private schools. They have had successful college experiences, she said.

But her son has had a different path.

After dropping out of high school, he got a diploma through adult education.

“But he spent the next 10 years more and more into drugs,” she said.

He is now incarcerated in Maine on a drug-related conviction.

“We were never able to undo the damage,” Morin said tearfully. “We pretty much lost him in fourth grade.”

She then told members of the legislative committee that the state’s future was in their hands.

“Please make it better,” Morin said.

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