Charter schools for Maine?


Yesterday’s public hearing on LD
1438, An Act to Permit Charter Schools
, went about as well as charter
school supporters could have hoped.

The committee began the hearings well behind schedule, so all testimony was
limited to two minutes.  This did put a damper on some of the testimony,
much of which revolved around personal stories of children struggling in
conventional public school settings and/or succeeding in alternative settings
of or kind or another.  Still, the fact that charter supporters were able
to muster almost two-dozen people to testify on the bill’s behalf meant that
the public hearing was dominated by charter supporters.  Among the big guns testifying in support of
the charter bill were the Maine PTA and the Maine State Board of Education.

I gave a very quick testimony, providing the committee with the two pieces of
research we have done on charter schools.  The first was
written in 2007 and serves as a quick primer on the concept of charter schools
The second, which we released yesterday, was, as I told the committee, inspired
by President Obama’s recent praise of charter schools as centers of
innovation.  Our review of the
literature on charter school innovation
shows that Obama was right –
charter schools do develop and integrate innovative educational approaches more
often and more successfully than conventional public schools.

I told the committee that I anticipated the opponents of charter schools – the
Maine Education Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, and
the Maine School Boards Association – would oppose the bill on the grounds
that, given the budget crisis the state currently faces, now was not the time
to redirect funding away from the conventional public schools.  I argued in
response that the budget crisis we face meant that this was actually the
perfect time to invest in charter schools, as the need for innovative
approaches to controlling rising costs and increasing student achievement is
greater now than ever.

As I anticipated, the opponents of the bill did indeed suggest that this was
not the time  to experiment with charter schools, arguing for the most
part that such schools would drain staff and resources away from existing
schools that are underfunded already. How spending a state average of over $10,400
per pupil constitutes a dearth of funding for schools is beyond me, but that
was the central argument of the charter opponents as it has been, frankly, for

Not a single parent, by the way, testified against the bill.

As for the Department of Education, Commissioner Gendron’s testimony “Neither
For Nor Against” the bill was somewhat confusing, as she appeared to suggest a
need for more study of the idea or more models to investigate or something. She
then clarified that a failure to enact some kind of charter school legislation
would seriously compromise the state’s ability to secure federal education
funding available under the recently-passed stimulus bill.

She is not making it up. A Newsweek
published yesterday reported the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan “recently warned that he may withhold federal education stimulus
money from states that limit the number of charter schools.”

So what was learned yesterday?

We learned that a number of Maine’s education reformers want charter schools, a
number of parents across Maine want charter schools, the State Board of
Education wants charter schools, the state PTA wants charter schools, the state
Commissioner of Education wants charter schools as does the governor she works
for, Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), the bill’s sponsor and ranking Senate
Democrat wants charter schools, Rep. John Pioti (D-Unity), a co-sponsor of the
bill and the House Democratic Leader wants charter schools, U.S. Secretary of Education
Arne Duncan wants charter schools and President Barack Obama wants charter

And we learned that if we don’t enact charter school legislation, we may be
ineligible to receive millions in federal education funding for the very
schools that charter opponents claim are underfunded already.

We also heard that MEA, MSSA, and MSBA oppose charter schools, but I don’t know
that we necessarily “learned” that yesterday, as they have opposed
every effort to enact charter schools that has come before the legislature in
recent memory.

The work session on the bill, at which the committee will vote its recommendations
for the bill,  has yet to be scheduled.