School reform comes to Maine

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 17, 2011

"We are underfunding our K-12 education by $400 million," says Portland Democratic state senator Justin Alfond. "Charters put more pressure on that funding shortfall," which he says will be made up by layoffs, reduced programs, or higher property taxes.

On the flip side of funding: charter start-ups are eligible for competitive federal grants that are not available to traditional public schools; in 2010 the US Department of Education's Charter Schools Program gave 12 states a total of $136 million to help support charter schools.

And charter schools can accept gifts and donations from all sorts of private sources, a source of concern for opponents.

"This is just the first step of privatizing public education . . . turning over tax dollars to private corporations," says Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association. (Private corporations may not own or operate charter schools, but they may donate freely.) Of charter school legislation at-large, Galgay says: "We think this is a solution in search of a problem."

But is it?


Are Maine schools that bad?

Why does Maine need reform in the first place? Let's look at our stats.

• According to the US Census Bureau, Maine spends about $11,600 annually per pupil, placing us relatively high (12th) nationally. Not that money seems to have much of an impact on results. In international comparisons, the United States (which spends an average of $9600 per student) ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th (eek!) in math. Yet the United States spends more than almost any other country (except Luxembourg), according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based organization that developed and administered the 2009 assessment. And those results are an improvement from the previous exam!

"[M]ore resources are not the simple answer for America's educational shortcomings," said US education secretary Arne Duncan after the results were reported in December 2010. "Higher performing countries tend to invest differently from us. For example, many prioritize higher teacher salaries over small class sizes. . . . The real problem with K-12 spending in the U.S. is our low educational productivity. Unlike high-performing systems, we achieve less per dollar. And we do less to target spending on the most challenged students and schools." Until we see who comes out of the woodwork to apply for authorizations, it's unclear how charter schools will deal with English language learners, special-needs students, or other specialized populations. However, LD 1553 specifically prohibits discrimination based on these factors.

• Maine ranks 23rd and 10th in the country on math and reading proficiency; in Education Week's 2011 "Quality Counts" survey (which measures components like student achievement, assessment and accountability, teacher development, and school finance), Maine scored an overall C+, falling to 27th on a nationwide ranking (we were 21st in 2010).

• A 2009 joint study by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, and the US Chamber of Commerce gave Maine dismal or mediocre marks in school management, finance, data, and technology systems, and the ability to remove ineffective teachers (which most principals in the survey blamed on teachers unions).

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