School reform comes to Maine

What we know, and what we have yet to learn, about changing education
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 17, 2011

Of all the conservative policies pushed through in the wake of Maine's Republican takeover last year, there is one on which the right and left may be able to find common ground. It's ironic that that policy, when taken alone, happens to be one that is incredibly polarizing: the fostering of school choice through charter schools.

In June, Maine became the 41st state to allow public charter schools; this was one of three top administration priorities described to the Phoenix this winter by LePage transition team member Tarren Bragdon, former CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center think tank (the other two were health-insurance reform and the indefinitely postponed right-to-work bill). Governor Paul LePage and the Republican majority share the support of President Barack Obama, who championed charter schools in Illinois, and some Maine Democrats.

"The governor wants to change the way we look at education," says Carol Weston, former state legislator and current state director for Americans For Prosperity, a Washington, DC-based conservative advocacy organization that supports charter schools and reduced government regulation (and is backed by Tea Party billionaires David and Charles Koch). "Governor LePage wants the face of education to be the student," as opposed to the current model, which she says is "putting bureaucracy first."

Whether or not this reform achieves its goal remains to be seen. Here's what it does do: The charter-school bill (LD 1553, An Act to Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine) establishes a seven-member state-charter school commission that will oversee the authorization of 10 such schools within the next 10 years. Local school boards may authorize additional charter schools in that same time frame, but the commission allows for the establishment of a charter school even in a charter-unfriendly town.

In the bill, a public charter school is described as one that has "autonomy over key decisions, including [those]...concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum, and instruction." In other words, charter schools are free to innovate and experiment, while being bound by fewer bureaucratic encumbrances and strict government regulations, and hopefully sharing best practices with other schools. In Maine, an authorized charter school "may include a specific academic approach or theme," such as vocational training, farming, fishing, and forestry, visual and performing arts, or science, math, and technology. (The Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which may come to mind, is a competitive-entry magnet school.)

Charter schools are public in that there's no tuition, and enrollment is open to any student who wants to attend the school (if that number exceeds capacity, the school should employ a "random selection process"). But there are certain exceptions that give critics ammunition: enrollment "preferences" are outlined in the bill, including for siblings of charter school pupils and children of charter school founders and board members.

There are limitations to ensure that a charter school doesn't siphon off more than 5 to 10 percent of local public school students per grade level during the first two years of its operation.

That was a concession from pro-charter folks, aimed at placating opponents like the Maine Education Association (a/k/a the Maine teachers union, representing about 25,000 teachers in the state), the state associations of principals, superintendents, and school boards, and some Democratic lawmakers, including several who represent Portland. Those who oppose charter schools say that the new system will take money away from traditional public schools; state and local education dollars follow students to charter schools, if they choose to switch.

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