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.

Advertisements

Charter school supporters hold public forums

Both Greenville and Belfast hosted public forums on charters schools in Maine this afternoon. Dr Judith Jones will speak at the event in Greenville. Dr. Jones talk will emphasize how charter schools can benefit a rural state such as Maine. Dr. Jones is director of the Maine Association for Public Charter Schools.

Dr. Joe Nathan will appear at the Belfast forum. Dr. Nathan heads the University of Minnesota Center for School Change and was also a founding father of the U.S. charter school movement. Dr. Nathan will give a little history of the charter school movement in his speech, while highlighting the lessons we have learned on charter schools up to this point.

The Maine Senate rejected charter schools, LD 1438, back in June. The bill garnered support from many state agencies such as the state Board of Education, Department of Education, Governor Baldacci, the Maine House, and the Maine PTA. Maine is one of only nine states who do not allow some form of charter schools. This puts Maine in serious jeopardy for $4.3 billion of Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” education stimulus funds to be released this December. This is money Maine education cannot afford to miss out on. The Maine Senate dropped the ball on charters. It will be Mainers who get the bricks dropped on them, not Augusta.

Maine Charter School Vote

An update on the Maine Charter School Bill

from Boston.com:

AUGUSTA, Maine—A bill to allow charter schools in Maine has gone down to defeat in the Senate and now goes to the House for consideration.

The Kennebec Journal said Thursday’s 22-13 vote split largely along party lines, with most Democrats opposing the bill and most Republicans favoring it.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton, touted charter schools as an option for students who are “left out” by the public school curriculum.

Democratic Sen. Deborah Simpson of Auburn argued that it would be bad public policy to take money from public schools to try a different approach at a time when municipal budgets are strained.

I still hope there is some way to get virtual charters through. Not allowing virtual charters would be a huge setback for Maine education.

Maine Explores Charter Schools

Maine is now considering charter schools. According to Maine Charter Schools, a bill(LD 1438) has been proposed to allow charter schools to form here in Maine.

Some highlights on the bill:

– LD 1438 will cash in on federal funds available to new charters. For a state struggling to meet budget requirements this is a boon. Without these funds charters would not be possible in Maine.

– During the first ten years after the bill passes twenty charters can be started. The charterization of current alternative schools and specialized schools such as magnet schools will not count toward the limit. There are 72 school administrative districts in Maine, not to mention numerous single town districts. Populace regions like Southern Maine and Bangor already have a number of alternative schools that may be converted to charters, so this limit should not restrict their implementation too greatly. The number of charters should be kept to a manageable number, at least until we can get the hang of how to run them.

– Local and regional school boards, colleges and universities that award 4 year degrees will be able to authorize applications for charter schools. The authorizing establishments will have oversight of the charters they allow. They will have measures to “enhance the quality” of the charters and make judgments based on the performance of the schools. What on earth does “enhance the quality” mean? Well it is made up of data including student academic performance, student academic growth, attendance, continued enrollment, college readiness for charter high schools, financial performance/responsibility, and parent involvement. These are all measures I support. They also necessitate a push toward better data collection for parents and authorizing boards. Exactly how certain things are measured, (will student performance be based solely on grades?) , have not been made clear.

– The charter will allow no more than 10% of the students from the district it is in to attend the school. If the school cannot accommodate all students who wish to attend students will be chosen to attend at random. This prevents the cherry picking of students to boost numbers we all fear.

– Maine charter teachers may bargain collectively or “form a professional group”. They can unionize in layman’s terms.

– Virtual charters are allowed as well. This is perhaps one of the most interesting developments in my mind. With a population density of about 43 people per square mile, which is skewed a bit by the dense York, Cumberland, and Androscogin counties, virtual charters would be a huge advantage to children living in the boonies. I hope the bill gets passed just so we can see some virtual charters sprout up.

The bill seems pretty solid to me. It is sponsored by Dennis Damon, who you may remember as being the sponsor of LD 1020 to legalize same-sex marriage. I’m interested to see how it will be presented to the public. This could be a big chance for Maine to show the rest of the nation how to make charters work. Here is a link to the pdf of the bill and a summary composed by Maine Charter Schools. Read them, then let’s hear your thoughts.

The Failure of Buffet Reform

Some in the reform crowd are so eager to “race to the top” they seem like they aren’t taking a few seconds to plan their route. They just spout words like accountability, choice, and charters without any pause for the best way to implement those principals. Then there are those who tout one reform as some sort of cure-all. These reformers have tunnel vision. They miss the interconnected nature of school reform. Both of these attitudes are dangerous.

This is buffet reform. Buffet reformers mix and match foods, pile their plates high, maybe get dessert first. The buffet is not about quality or satisfaction, it’s about how much you can stuff. The result is usually the same; you wind up overstuffed and unsatisfied. You may stumble upon an exemplary meal, say at the Plaza or Harraseeket Inn on mother’s day, but for the most part it’s not a great experience.

True reform works more like a great tasting menu. Everything is planned with a purpose. All of the ingredients cooked to be so much more than the sum of their parts. Each dish complementing the last. Education reform functions best when implemented in that fashion.

Take the example of school choice. Many see school choice/ competition as a positive force. Those with the wealth to do so have been able to choose private school for their children. Since we have become a physically mobile society, those with money have been able to choose their children’s school by where they live. Making school choice available to all students levels the playing field. But just advocating choice alone does not foster meaningful competition or provide the greatest benefits to schools, parents, and students.

How is a parent to know what a certain school offers to their children? There is no simple way for a parent to examine a school. A system should first be in place that collects school information and it should include more than just student test scores. Parents should be allowed to view school safety records, graduation rates, college attendance rates, extracurricular programs, arts programs, ap courses offered, and other relevant data. Districts should be able to provide families with this information in a simple format. This data should make it easy to compare schools and locate certain strengths parents and students desire.

Although test scores are only one part of the information provided to parents, they are an important one. Choice forces districts to set clear goals which necessitate better, more efficient testing. Reforms to what we test and how we test, moving toward leaner problem solving and analytical testing, need to be coupled with school choice. So we are moved toward greater accountability for students and teachers.

Greater flexibility also comes along with this. Flexibility and accountability go hand in hand. If you have one without the other you might as well have neither. So with accountability teachers can be given a wide birth as to how they instruct in the classroom. As long as the students are learning who cares if a teacher can convey their knowledge best by hanging upside down from the ceiling. And of course with schools accountable districts and schools can have greater flexibility as to who they hire for teaching and administrative jobs. A certain amount of decentralization can be encouraged.

You can see how the business of meaningful reform quickly becomes interdependent, or perhaps I just confused the Hell out of you. Flexibility and accountability are always at the heart of every reform. Without flexibility choice cannot be meaningful. There will be no more choices then there are now. Great innovation will not be allowed to develop. Without accountability nothing is in place to ensure a certain standard to what our children our learning. Parents will have no way to make a proper decision in choosing a school without data to back it up. Accountability provides that data.

Of course I have simplified, for sake of this conversation on choice, what flexibility and accountability can do for education. The topic has been explore on numerous websites and books. Most people who disagree with particular reforms have not seen a comprehensive well thought out plan. All they have been given are buffet reforms. Which is why they continue to leave the table unfulfilled.

On Silver Bullets Fixes & Magic Reform Potions

I’ve heard dozens of arguments for and against charter schools. One personal favorite of mine is comparisons of business and public sector reforms to education equivalents. Some reforms, especially when looking at the administrative side of education, can be interchanged easily. How we manage data and central offices are similar no matter what kind of business we’re running.

Other things don’t match up quite as nice however. Sharon Higgins compared Oakland, CA police charters to school charters at The Perimeter Primate. Using language to describe the police situation as education reformers do on education, Sharon attempts to link the failure of the police charters to a failure in school charters.

from The Perimeter Primate

Independently operated providers, mostly private individuals who claimed that they could provide a superior service, were granted charters by a number of cities which gave them control of individual police beats. As a part of the agreement, “charter beat” operators were permitted to have more program flexibility than the traditional police department. They could make additional demands of the citizens who lived in their beats, and of the non-union officers they employed. It was thought that these types of innovations would be good, and that the competition presented by the “charter beats” would stimulate the failing police departments to do a better job.

At the time, Oakland was divided into 60 police beats – geographic parcels staffed with a set of specific police officers. Some beats had higher crime rates than others depending on certain factors in the geographic region, namely a high poverty level. Most law enforcement reformers staunchly believed that high poverty was no excuse for higher crime rates, and that if the police would only try harder, and smarter, those challenges would be overcome.

The “charter beats” used a force of non-unionized security officers. Many were recent top college graduates who were interested in giving two years of service to urban communities. Once they were accepted into an alternative training program, they would attend an intensive, five-week series of classes, after which they would be given a set of equipment, a patrol car, and their assignment. To compensate for the ongoing lack of experience, coaching was provided by a host of paid consultants. As the “charter beats” increased, more and more of the traditional, preexisting beats were closed down. Police officers were laid off and the size of the regular police department shrank. It eventually disappeared, along with the police union. The city’s law enforcement had been transformed into a system free of unions and of many of the previous legal restrictions.

Sharon’s post made for an interesting read, but her analogy doesn’t quite make it. Despite the fact that I have compared teaching to policing in the past, this situation is not the same. Police departments are not meant to compete to fight crime. Recall the autonomous fire fighting companies of the 19th century. Fire brigades would compete for fires. The brigade who put out the fire would get money from insurance companies that protected the building. People weren’t too happy that while their house was burning competing fire companies were arguing over who would put it out.

No one wants to wait in an emergency while police departments argue over who will take the call. The immediacy of policing and it’s direct link to our personal safety set it apart from education. This aspect makes the comparison of the two charter systems problematic, if not impossible.

Let’s give credit where credit is due though. Sharon’s post and argument leads to another point. Oakland police charters fared poorly because they failed to address other things that needed to be reformed as well. Anyone who comes out and says “if all schools were charters things would be stellar” or “merit pay’ll solve it” is short sighted, narrow minded, and something P.T. Barnum claimed was born every minute.

What we need is comprehensive reform. We need to analyze each school and each district, noting what specialized needs aren’t being addressed in each. Blanket reform would be like a surgeon saying that because you have a bad knee he was going to replace your whole lower torso.

I’ll repeat it again, there is no magic reform potion. It isn’t that simple. There is hard serious work to be done. Put you ideologies in your pockets, roll up your sleeves and dig in people.

On Silver Bullets Fixes & Magic Reform Potions

I’ve heard dozens of arguments for and against charter schools. One personal favorite of mine is comparisons of business and public sector reforms to education equivalents. Some reforms, especially when looking at the administrative side of education, can be interchanged easily. How we manage data and central offices are similar no matter what kind of business we’re running.

Other things don’t match up quite as nice however. Sharon Higgins compared Oakland, CA police charters to school charters at The Perimeter Primate. Using language to describe the police situation as education reformers do on education, Sharon attempts to link the failure of the police charters to a failure in school charters.

from The Perimeter Primate

Independently operated providers, mostly private individuals who claimed that they could provide a superior service, were granted charters by a number of cities which gave them control of individual police beats. As a part of the agreement, “charter beat” operators were permitted to have more program flexibility than the traditional police department. They could make additional demands of the citizens who lived in their beats, and of the non-union officers they employed. It was thought that these types of innovations would be good, and that the competition presented by the “charter beats” would stimulate the failing police departments to do a better job.

At the time, Oakland was divided into 60 police beats – geographic parcels staffed with a set of specific police officers. Some beats had higher crime rates than others depending on certain factors in the geographic region, namely a high poverty level. Most law enforcement reformers staunchly believed that high poverty was no excuse for higher crime rates, and that if the police would only try harder, and smarter, those challenges would be overcome.

The “charter beats” used a force of non-unionized security officers. Many were recent top college graduates who were interested in giving two years of service to urban communities. Once they were accepted into an alternative training program, they would attend an intensive, five-week series of classes, after which they would be given a set of equipment, a patrol car, and their assignment. To compensate for the ongoing lack of experience, coaching was provided by a host of paid consultants. As the “charter beats” increased, more and more of the traditional, preexisting beats were closed down. Police officers were laid off and the size of the regular police department shrank. It eventually disappeared, along with the police union. The city’s law enforcement had been transformed into a system free of unions and of many of the previous legal restrictions.

Sharon’s post made for an interesting read, but her analogy doesn’t quite make it. Despite the fact that I have compared teaching to policing in the past, this situation is not the same. Police departments are not meant to compete to fight crime. Recall the autonomous fire fighting companies of the 19th century. Fire brigades would compete for fires. The brigade who put out the fire would get money from insurance companies that protected the building. People weren’t too happy that while their house was burning competing fire companies were arguing over who would put it out.

No one wants to wait in an emergency while police departments argue over who will take the call. The immediacy of policing and it’s direct link to our personal safety set it apart from education. This aspect makes the comparison of the two charter systems problematic, if not impossible.

Let’s give credit where credit is due though. Sharon’s post and argument leads to another point. Oakland police charters fared poorly because they failed to address other things that needed to be reformed as well. Anyone who comes out and says “if all schools were charters things would be stellar” or “merit pay’ll solve it” is short sighted, narrow minded, and something P.T. Barnum claimed was born every minute.

What we need is comprehensive reform. We need to analyze each school and each district, noting what specialized needs aren’t being addressed in each. Blanket reform would be like a surgeon saying that because you have a bad knee he was going to replace your whole lower torso.

I’ll repeat it again, there is no magic reform potion. It isn’t that simple. There is hard serious work to be done. Put you ideologies in your pockets, roll up your sleeves and dig in people.