The Universal Notebook: Charter schools are public schools

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There is a liberal bias against charter schools that I once shared and no longer do. LD 604, An Act to Promote Accountability in Maine’s Charter Schools, is an expression of that bias. 

The liberal bias is that charter schools pose a threat to traditional public schools, both by serving as functional critiques and by siphoning off resources. The problem with this bias is that the laws and policies it fosters tend to favor the entrenched education establishment.

There is also a conservative bias in favor of charter schools, which feeds the liberal antithesis. Trump Education Commissioner Betsy DeVos was a pure embodiment of the bias that public education has failed and must be replaced by private schools, especially those grounded in Christian ethics.

Both the liberals and the conservatives are wrong.

I am a public school guy. I attended public schools K-12 as did my wife and daughters. I also served on the School Committee in Yarmouth for six years and then served three years on the School Facilities Committee. My wife now serves on the board of the charter school that three of my grandchildren attend. What I have learned from their experiences is that charter schools are public schools. We should be encouraging them, not holding them back.

In 2011, Maine authorized 10 charter schools and that is still all there are. In the beginning, school districts had to pay the per-pupil costs for each of their students who elected to attend a charter school. That did siphon funding away from public schools. In 2015, the funding mechanism was revised so that charter schools are now funded in much the same way as traditional public schools. 

LD 604 seeks both to give the commissioner of education sole authority over the expansion of charter school facilities and to separate charter school funding from other public school funding. At an April 7 hearing on the bill, the Department of Education, Maine School Management Association, and Maine Education Association predictably submitted testimony in favor of the legislation. 

A representative of the State Board of Education, however, surprised me by testifying that there was already sufficient oversight of charter schools and that LD 604 would only create unnecessary confusion. Dozens of charter school supporters, myself included, agreed, submitting written and spoken testimony in opposition to LD 604.

In response to the overwhelming testimony of charter school proponents, LD 604 sponsor Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, an eminently reasonable fellow, amended the bill in the work session, eliminating the facilities and funding provisions and directing the DOE to study the issues.

All 10 of Maine’s public charter schools are distinctly different, ranging from those that embrace experiential education (Acadia Academy, Ecology Learning Center) to those that provide virtual education (Maine Connections Academy, Maine Virtual Academy). Some focus on STEM education (Baxter Academy), others on the arts (Maine Arts Academy), ecology (Harpswell Coastal Academy), or on progressive educational philosophies such as Reggio Emelia (Fiddlehead School).

As a parent, grandparent, former school committee member, and journalist, I have come to believe that we should be encouraging as many public educational options as possible with our tax dollars. Traditional public education lays the foundation, but its one-size-fits-all factory model of schooling does not work for some students. It just grinds them up and spits them out 12 years later – if they last that long.

School choice is a good thing. Ultimately, as most charter schools have waiting lists, Maine might be better off with 15 or 20.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.