School reform comes to Maine

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 17, 2011

• We have middling graduation rates (about 76 percent of Maine students graduate from high school on time, and of those, only about half enroll in college). According to the Washington, DC-based Alliance for Excellent Education, if half of Maine's 3600 Class of 2010 dropouts had graduated, the state would see an additional $1.7 million in tax revenue, 100 new jobs, and $22 million in economic growth. With vocational and alternative programs in the mix, the charter-school model could retain some of those dropouts.

• Perhaps most importantly, we scored abysmally in the US Department of Education's 2009-2010 "Race to the Top" education-reform competition, through which more than $4 billion was up for grabs. Out of 36 applicants, only three (Alabama, Mississippi, and Montana) fared worse. Race to the Top awards favored states with charter-school programs.

Okay, okay — we get it. Maine has got a ways to go. Can charter schools help us get there?


What charters might bring

A 2010 report by the American Institutes for Research — commissioned by the grant-bestowing Boston Foundation — found that two elements were especially significant in school achievement: length of the school day, and autonomy over staffing and hiring.

Charter schools have control over both these aspects of education because they are exempt from statutes and rules applicable to public schools and local school boards. While the legislation states that a charter-school teacher must "hold an appropriate teaching certificate," it also includes a rather wide exception for "those with an advanced degree . . . or unique expertise or experience in the curricular areas in which they teach."

"We have with our rural schools a lot of the same problems as inner-city schools," says Amanda Clark, Maine Heritage Policy Center development and research associate. "Drained funds and low achievement scores due to lower amounts of resources." Charter schools offer several potential remedies, she says. First of all, access to federal funds for which they are currently ineligible, like a $150,000 competitive grant for new charter schools. Secondly, "the ability to be more flexible with their school day and school year [and] to hire teachers from outside the regular arena." She also cites "accountability" that's akin to a business model — "if parents don't send their kinds to a charter school, they can be shut down." If the charter choice isn't an attractive one, it won't succeed.

That said, for every pro there are cons in the pro-charter chant. Alfond says that a mere 20 percent of charter schools perform better than public schools; 46 percent perform on par and 37 percent do worse. Other reports suggest that teacher turnover is higher at charter schools, which could be attributed to either teacher performance (and ease of firing) or teacher dissatisfaction.

But we're past the point of quibbling over studies. The law is on the books. What can we expect now?

Several observers have mentioned the former Good Will-Hinckley School — soon to be the Maine Academy for Natural Sciences, a magnet school focused on agriculture and forestry — as a likely candidate for charter authorization. Former Maine Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings, a reformed charter-school opponent who also advised President Obama on education issues, took over last year as the president of the school, located between Waterville and Skowhegan.

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