Gov. Paul LePage is correct that public charter schools have the potential to become a new tool to engage teachers, students, parents and community members in finding innovative ways to improve public education in Maine.
Charter schools may foster learning environments in which students stymied by conventional public school settings can thrive. But, like students confronted by unfamiliar material, they need time and attention to succeed. They have not yet had that time in Maine.
That’s why LD 1529, LePage’s bill to remove from state law the limit of approving 10 public charter schools within 10 years is premature. The Education Committee, which holds a work session on the bill Thursday, should recommend against it, and the full Legislature should reject it.
If that happens, we urge LePage to resist the temptation to lash out again with accusations that Democrats or the Maine Charter School Commission are trying to sabotage charter schools. Instead, patience and a sharp focus on ensuring that Maine’s fledgling charter schools succeed would demonstrate an appropriate prioritization of student needs over politics in the governor’s mission to reform education.
If “performance-based accountability is the hallmark of the charter school concept,” as Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for charter schools, wrote in 2011, then Maine has yet to amass any data to measure that performance.
Maine’s first two charter schools opened in the fall of 2012. Students at Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences have yet to complete their first full academic year. Three more public charter schools are scheduled to open this fall.
The type of student-centered learning that represents the core of charter school philosophy requires gauging each learner’s year-to-year progress. For students in Maine’s first charter schools, progress or lack thereof won’t be apparent until next year at the earliest. That’s not enough data on which to base a change to Maine law.
The charter school law Maine enacted in 2011 calls for annual performance assessments to show how well students are performing and how well the schools are doing in meeting goals listed in their charters. The charter renewal portion of the law calls for a comprehensive performance report no later than June 30 of the school’s fourth year of operation to identify weaknesses or concerns to be addressed as a condition of earning a new five-year charter.
Those components of the law reflect best practices from other states where charter schools have operated since the 1990s.
“It remains the case that the single most effective way to evaluate whether a charter school is succeeding is to measure value-added growth over time, including how that growth, retention, and, yes, parent satisfaction compare to the same factors in the schools those students would otherwise be attending,” Allen wrote in the Center for Education Reform’s 2011 analysis of what works and doesn’t work in the realm of charter school performance accountability.
Spurred on by LePage, the Maine Department of Education has emphasized accountability in evaluating public schools, teachers and students. The same standard of measurable accountability should apply to charter schools, but it will take several years to acquire a valid sample.
Patiently monitoring and adapting assessment standards will help existing and emerging charter schools succeed in Maine. If the performance of Maine charter schools yields a quantifiable record of success, that should be the impetus for changing the law to allow more charter schools in the state.
Correction: The description of the photo listed Gov. Paul LePage signing a bill on Wednesday. He signed the bill to allow charter schools in Maine in 2011.