Steve Bowen on charter schools in Maine

The introduction of charter schools in Maine has been plagued by myths and misconceptions. Maine’s senate voted 20 to 14 against the most recent charter school legislation, LD 1438. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated recently that “states will hurt their chance to compete for millions of federal stimulus dollars if they fail to embrace innovations like charter schools.”

The Maine View spoke recently with Steve Bowen. Bowen is the director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Institute. How charter schools can benefit Mainers, charter funding, and dispelling myths about charter schools were just a few of the subjects discussed.

Let’s begin with your thoughts on the general state of education in Maine.

To be blunt, our schools are not as good as people think. Our students rank well against kids in other states in standardized tests, but a good deal of that has to do with the unique demography of Maine’s students, who are almost exclusively white and English-speaking. We should expect them to do well against the tens of millions of non-English-speaking learners across the nation and the tens of millions of poor and minority students trapped in horrific schools in our biggest cities. When you adjust for our demographics, though, our rankings plunge. Some of our schools are very good, but not nearly as many of them as people suppose.

We need to make our schools much, much better and we need to do it very, very quickly.

Many in Maine’s legislative and education circles supported the past Charter legislation. What is your opinion of the defeated Charter School Bill (LD 1438)? Was LD 1438 perfect or could anything be done to improve it the next time it comes around?

I think the bill as it was originally drafted was excellent. It had been carefully crafted based on national models and feedback from a previous charter school bill which failed passage back in 2006. LD 1438 was watered down during the committee process in the hope that doing so would win it broader support, but that support did not materialize. In general, those who opposed the bill opposed charter public schools in principle, not this particular piece of charter school legislation.

There were a few outside Maine who saw the rejection of the Charter legislation as Mainers standing up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for charter expansion. Do you believe that sentiment to be true?

Certainly the Obama administration’s call for states to lift caps on charter public schools, including Maine’s absolute cap, impacted the debate, but I don’t think legislators voted against charters simply to send some kind of message to Washington. By and large, those that voted against the bill simply oppose charter public schools. If anything, I think the administration’s support for charters helped the bill, especially in the House.

I was enthusiastic about the virtual charter measure of LD 1438. What is your perspective on how virtual charter schools would have aided rural and urban Mainers?

There is no question that Maine is quickly falling behind the rest of the nation in terms of embracing online and virtual schooling. Florida, for instance, has a statewide virtual high school which gives students access to all kinds of courses unavailable in their local schools. Why aren’t we doing this? Online and virtual schooling is the future. The centuries-old model of students leaving home every morning and going to a brick and mortar building to be instructed exclusively by teachers located there is rapidly coming to an end. Our grandchildren will likely never set foot in a “school” as we understand them today.

How ironic it is that Maine, once seen as an innovator in educational technology, has come to resist the innovation of online and virtual schooling, which will utterly transform education as we know it.

Maine is one of the more rural states in the U.S. It has been said that there is not enough population base to support charter schools. Is that accurate?

One of the arguments I advanced in response to this concern was that charter public schools could very well be tools for economic and community development in the very areas of the state that most need it. How are we going to attract young families to rural Washington and Aroostook Counties, by maintaining the status quo? No. What we should be doing is transforming these rural schools into highly innovative charter public schools doing incredibly creative things.

Greenville is contemplating doing exactly this. According to a recent article in the Bangor Daily News, school and community leaders up there are looking for a way to transform the Greenville school into some kind of charter-type school that uses an outdoor leadership approach and integrates the curriculum around environmental stewardship. They’ve found that existing state and federal regulations prohibit them from pursuing this, and so are looking to the charter school model as a way to liberate teacher and administrators.

Unfortunately, legislators in Augusta think they know better than the folks in Greenville, what is in the best interest of Greenville, so the charter approach, at least for now, is off the table. Imagine, though, liberating teachers and school administrators all over the state and letting them explore innovative new approaches to teaching and learning. Such an approach would be huge, especially for rural Maine.

There is concern that charter schools would draw funding from already struggling rural schools. Has that worry been overplayed?

As I noted above, charter public schools would be a boon for rural Maine. If you ran a rural school, and a charter public school, were they allowed in Maine, opened two towns over and started drawing some of your students away, what would you do in response? If I were running the school, I would immediately convert to charter status and work to win those students back with more innovation and new ideas. The fact that the money follows the child is what encourages new approaches.

Some states have enacted chartering legislation that provides existing public schools with the same funding even if some of their students leave and go to charter schools. As you might imagine, that means no pressure on the existing schools to innovate and improve, with the result that the students left behind continue to endure schools that are failing them. It is the pressure to compete that drives innovation.

Plus, it is important to remember that if the struggling rural school is struggling because it is not very good, than putting it out of business is a good thing. We have to stop thinking in terms of what is in the best interest of schools and start thinking in terms of what is in the best interest of students.

The cost of charter schools has also been a source of uneasiness for Mainers. Would charter schools bring a heavier tax burden to towns containing them?

No. In most instances they would save tax dollars. Under the provisions of LD 1438, school districts were to pay charter schools a per-pupil amount equal to what the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model says should be spent per student. The vast majority of districts in Maine, 88% to be exact, are spending well above what the formula says they should, which means that spending the state-calculated per-pupil rate would save the district money.

For instance, if a school district is currently spending $500 per child more than the state’s funding formula says it should, sending each child to a charter school at the state’s rate, as under LD 1438, would save the district $500 per child.

Furthermore, taxpayers do not fund construction or capital costs for charter public schools. Charter public schools have to provide for buildings and so forth on their own, through private donations and the like. The savings to taxpayers on capital costs alone would be huge.

Some say charter schools are unnecessary as they often do not outperform existing public schools. Is this myth true?

There are good and bad charter public schools just as there are good and bad conventional public schools. The difference is that bad charter schools close, whereas bad public schools remain open forever and continue to be fed a steady diet of students who are given no other options. What charter schools have that conventional public schools lack is accountability.

Besides which, most comparisons between charter public schools and conventional public schools don’t take into account that charter schools disproportionally serve low-income students and most do so with fewer resources at their disposal that comparable conventional public schools.

Charter schools have been accused of cherry picking only the best students to boost their performance rates. What would have prevented Maine charters from this?

The charter school law would have prevented this from happening because charter public schools are public schools and cannot use any kind of selective admissions process. They have to take all comers, and if they exceed enrollment capacity, have to use a lottery system to fill enrollments. The law forbids them from “cherry picking” students. They are public schools and can no more turn away students than can conventional public schools.

Charter public schools can specialize in certain instructional approaches, and these approaches may not appeal to all students, but charter public schools are public schools and cannot be exclusionary.

Many believe that charter schools could be controlled by corporations, such as Green Dot or the Gates Foundation, or religious organizations. There is a fear that these organizations would then use charter schools to push their agendas on children. Can Maine charter schools avoid this?

Setting aside for a moment the questionable notion that conventional public schools somehow do not have an agenda that they are pushing on students, what prevents charter schools from doing this is student and family choice. Students cannot be compelled to attend a public charter school – they are schools of choice. Assuming that you have tough transparency and accountability provisions in your charter school law, charter schools that are more interested in ideological ax grinding than in improving educational outcomes will fail and close. Only those schools that effectively meet the educational needs of students will succeed and remain open. You can’t say the same about a single conventional public school in this country.

Opponents of public charter schools and of school choice in general give parents very little credit for knowing whether their children are getting a high quality education or not. Parents should not be allowed to choose, we are repeatedly told, because they don’t know a good school when they see it. The research clearly shows, though, that parents, when given educational choices, do their homework and deliberate very, very carefully about where to send their child. The solution, therefore, is to give them lots of high quality choices, including public charter schools run by non-profits, for-profits, community groups, universities, and so forth. Parents, given a choice, will make the right decision.

Do you believe charter schools to be a better education option than what is already available to Mainers?

Having the option of public charter schools is better than not having the option, but whether the charter schools that are then created are better than the other choices available to students is a decision for students and families to make, not me. All I am saying is that this is a very promising reform approach that is being tried in 40 other states and ought to at least be an option here as well.

Greenville wants to convert its school to charter status in order to launch a highly innovation new approach to teaching and learning. Will it be better for students? I don’t know, but I am fully prepared to allow Greenville, if it so chooses, to at least experiment with it and find out, and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why legislators in Augusta think they shouldn’t have that opportunity.

If you had one point to make to change a charter opponent’s mind what would it be?

I guess I would encourage them to spend some time reading about and thinking about the challenges confronting this generation of school kids. These kids, my own 7- and 10- year-olds included, will be asked to compete for prosperity in ways that no prior generation of Americans has ever been asked to. As the national debt continues to skyrocket, these young people will face enormous fiscal and budgetary challenges here at home at the very time they will be asked to compete for jobs against tens of millions of college graduates from India and China.

To prepare them for this, we are using centuries-old model of schooling run on a school year calendar inherited from a pre-industrial agrarian society. Go back to your high school today, no matter what your age, and tell me how much, if anything, has fundamentally changed in the way that school does its work. Yes, there are computers and technological advances, but in the way that the school fundamentally works, from the factory-era bell schedule to the compartmentalization of knowledge (science in this room for 50 minutes, math in that room to 50 minutes), schools are run today almost exactly as they have more than 50 years.

That isn’t going to do it. We desperately need new approaches and new models for teaching and learning. Unfortunately, rather than liberate our educators to pursue these reforms, we have constructed these massive educational bureaucracies and have burdened them with overregulation and red tape. They can’t innovate even if they wanted to.

Charter schools, though, are a model that frees educators from all of that and allows them to be enterprising and innovative. The data on this is overwhelming, and it is what makes this model so promising that Republicans and Democrats alike (other than here in Maine) are rushing to embrace it.

The status quo is not enough. It is not enough. We need big, we need bold, we need game-changing. Charter schools aren’t the whole solution, but they are a very, very big piece of it.

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  2. […] speaks of is also false.  I spoke with Stephen Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Institute a few months ago on charter schools.  I asked Mr. Bowen directly if charter schools would draw funding from an already tight education […]

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