Charter schools for Maine? Part 2


My hope had been that I would able, by now, to report that the Legislature’s Education Committee had voted the charter school bill out and sent it on to the full House and Senate for a vote. Instead, after a couple of hours of debate on Thursday, the committee voted to table the bill until some time next week.

What’s the holdup?

It was clear from Thursday’s debate that the committee was not particularly familiar with the bill. This was due in part, no doubt, to a hurry-up public hearing a week ago in which the committee limited testimony to two minutes and asked few, if any questions.

There were plenty of questions at the work session, though. The major issues?

  • There were several finance questions to lead off, though I don’t know that the right questions ended up being asked. The charter school bill requires that the EPS-calculated per-pupil amount, state and local, follow the child to the charter school. This was characterized as draining resources from the existing schools, but since 88% of districts are spending over EPS, having a student go to a charter school at that rate is a cost savings, isn’t it?  The State Planning Office says that if all school districts spent their EPS amount, we’d save $220 million statewide. Charter schools would be paid the EPS amount.

The same could be said in response to concerns raised by committee members that opening new schools would cost taxpayers more. The opposite is true, though. The Portland school system is currently spending $10 million more than EPS says it should. If it sent ALL its kids to charter schools for the EPS rate, it would SAVE taxpayers $10 million, no matter how many schools were built.

  • There were questions about certified teachers. The bill requires that only 50% of a charter school’s teachers be certified, which concerned some committee members. Meanwhile, none of Maine’s Town Academies, which also educate publicly funded students (and, incidentally, do it for less than the EPS rate, in most cases), are required to employ certified teachers, and they seem to do just fine. Study after study shows no correlation between certification and teacher excellence anyway. This should not be an issue.
  • There were questions, lots of them, about whether we should cap the number of charter schools. The bill allows public school systems to create any number of charters, but limits colleges and universities, which also have the power to authorize charter schools, to authorize only 20. This was seen by some as not being enough of a cap, with the committee’s Senate chair, Sen. Alfond, suggesting a cap of ten charter schools total, statewide, for the next ten years. 

Data from other states shows that adopting so stringent a charter cap would place us among the least charter-friendly states in the nation that actually has charters. The data below is from the Education Commission of the States, which maintains a charter school database.

Data on Charter school caps.xls

It is important to point out that Education Secretary Duncan, in a recent Chicago Tribune article, criticized Illinois for having charter school caps that were too strict. It sent the message, he said, that Illinois was not ready to innovate. Illinois has a cap of 60 charter schools statewide.

There were other issues as well, but these seemed to be ones that generated the most concern. One hopes that committee members take the weekend to do a thorough review of the materials from the public hearing (the Maine Association for Charter Schools provided them with a huge folder full of material), and come into work next week ready to make Maine a leader on charter schools, not the follower it has been for years.

Click here for a list of Education Committee members, with links to their contact information