Charter School Battle Reignites

Several groups are seeking to make Maine the 40th state to allow charter schools.  The groups, including the Maine Association of Charter Schools, Democrats for Education Reform, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, will meet this Wednesday the 14th in Augusta.  The groups seek to inform Mainers about the benefits of charter schools in combating dropout rates, the subject of a recent forum in Orono, low achievement, and more.  Matthew Stone reported that the forum comes as another battle over allowing charter schools in Maine is about to heat up.

Advocates of charter schools see the institutions as a way to diversify the learning environment and bring more advantages to Maine students.  “We’re just not competitive if we’re not giving students and parents and educators the option for charter schools,” said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the MACS. “It’s not the answer to everything. It’s just another tool.”  Charter schools have also been cite many times as a key component to receiving Federal “Race to the Top” funding.

The president of the Maine Education Association teacher’s union, Chris Galgay, seemed downright offended at the assertion that Maine needs charter schools.  Galgay believes that supporters of charter schools are attacking the hard work done in public schools.  He also accused charter schools of cherry-picking students to get only the best of the best.  Galgay also wondered where the funding would come from for charter schools, assuming funds would be robbed from public education to pay for them.

Chris Galgay is mistaken about a few things.  Supporting charter schools is not equivalent to attacking the hard work done by public school educators.  If  you want to provide another schooling option it does not mean you necessarily believe public schools have failed.  There are some great public schools in this state and some excellent teachers.  I have had the privileged to know many of those teachers.  I also have known some who were constrained by what they could or could not do in the public setting.  The charter setting could have nurtured these teachers and helped them grow if they choose to be there.  Also, charters can specialize in ways that public schools cannot.  You could have schools focused on the arts, science, mechanical trades, you name it.  Curriculum restraints dictate what must be taught within a given school year.  This is not a condemnation of that system.  Some thrive in the public school environment, while others may do better in a charter setting.  Encouraging charter schools in Maine is not an attack on the current public education system.  This is a supplement to make Maine’s education system richer.

Some charter schools do cherry-pick their students and are elitist corporate entities.  If Mr. Galgay had read the charter school bill (LD 1438 pdf warning) he would know Maine legislators had foreseen this.  They included measures in the bill that established oversight of charter schools by local and state school boards, or by a Maine college or university that awards 4 year degrees.  These boards would have control over who would be allowed to begin a charter schools and function as review boards for a charter schools continued existence.  Also if there are more students applying then there are spots for in a charter school students will be chosen in a random lottery.  The so called skimming that Galgay fears would have been clearly mitigated by the smart thinking of Maine’s legislators.

The funding issue Galgay 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 budget or increase the tax burden on Maine communities.  Here is what he had to say:

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.

Again, Mr. Galgay’s fears are unfounded.

There have been a lot of stories on the success of charter schools.  There have been good and bad charters just as there are good and bad public schools.  Charter schools are not a magic potion to solve our education ills, but because not every charter schools is phenomenal should we reject them outright?  By that logic we ought to reject public school and as well.  Why deny Maine students and educators another tool?  Charter schools, especially virtual charters, can be the jump start the Maine education system needs.  It is not the end of the public school system by any means.   We must evolve and adapt to the changing world and education climate around us.  The future of Maine’s youth and Maine’s economy depends on our evolution.  Charter schools are part of an evolution.  We can’t be left behind.