20 Questions: Charter Schools in Maine

The ins, outs, and issues surrounding the new players in public education.

By Edgar Allen Beem

So you’ve heard about charter Schools opening in Maine, but you’re fuzzy on the details. You can be forgiven. Particularly for those who aren’t parenting school-age kids, the issue of charter schools can be tough to follow, awash in specialized jargon, complex accounting details, and conflicting views. Maine’s charter schools are public schools, but their relationship with public school districts has at times been strained, competitive, and even hostile (you may have heard of Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s opposition to the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science). Here’s a primer on what all the fuss is about.

1. What is a public charter school?

The Maine Department of Education defines charter schools as “public schools of choice [that] students can decide to attend as an alternative to traditional public schools.” In 2011, Governor Paul LePage fulfilled a campaign promise by signing into law a bill establishing a commission to authorize 10 charter schools in the first 10 years of the law. Since then, six of them — including one online virtual school — have opened. The schools’ founding organizations and missions are varied. Parents and teachers founded the Cornville Regional Charter School, for example, as a replacement for that town’s elementary school, which was shut down as a result of school district consolidation. Maine Academy of Natural Sciences was founded by Good Will-Hinckley, a longtime home and school for troubled youth. In some states, a charter school can outsource all school operations to a for-profit management organization, but Maine law forbids this for brick-and-mortar schools. Maine’s six charter schools currently enroll 900 — or about one-half of 1 percent — of the 186,000 public school students in Maine.

2. How does a charter school differ from a private school or magnet schools?

Public charter schools cannot charge tuition or set admissions standards, as prep schools and magnet schools can.

3. Why might Maine benefit from charter schools?

Advocates say charter schools can provide an affordable alternative for students for whom traditional public schools are not working. They also believe charter schools can encourage traditional public schools to perform better in order not to lose students. “We’re not out to replace traditional schools,” says Judith Denton Jones, chair of the board of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “We’re out to improve them.”

4. What is the Maine Charter School Commission?

The commission consists of seven members appointed by the Maine State Board of Education. Three come from the Board of Education and the other four from a variety of professional backgrounds. The commission votes to authorize or reject a proposed charter school based on a review of its mission, academic programs, governance structure, student and staff policies, and financing. The commission also monitors school performance and decides whether to renew or revoke the charter after five years.

5. Are there other ways for charter schools to be authorized?

Yes. Local school boards and groups of school boards can authorize a charter school in their districts independent of the Maine Charter School Commission. So far, none have done so. One reason may be that all public charter schools must be open to students statewide, so a school district that opened a charter school could not guarantee that its own students would get in.

6. How do charter schools select the students they admit?

Public charter schools in Maine must accept any Maine resident student. If there are more applications than openings, a lottery system is used. Openings at five of the six charter schools were filled via lotteries this year, the exception being Maine Connections Academy, which opened in September with 279 students, well above its minimum threshold of 247 students.

7. Who oversees a charter school?

Public charter schools are overseen by the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Charter School Commission, and the school’s own board of directors. Charter school boards of directors are not elected officials; rather, the school asks them to serve. Charter schools are not answerable to local school boards.

8. How are charter schools funded?

Charter schools are funded by the school districts that the students would otherwise attend. The district pays the charter schools a per-pupil tuition set by the state. Charter schools also raise money through gifts and grants, but the basic funding principle is that local and state tax dollars follow the student.

9. Do charter schools take money away from existing public school systems?

From the school districts’ perspective, yes. Many school officials say that the problem with the dollars-following-student model is that most costs associated with running a school are not per pupil. A district that loses 10 high school students to a charter school, for example, cannot eliminate a teaching position, cut down on athletic events, reduce the number of buses, or lower heating costs. Brent Colbry, superintendent of MSAD 54 in Skowhegan, says it costs his district close to $1 million for 102 students in the district to attend charter schools. “When you take 102 kids out of my district and spread them across a district with almost 3,000 students, no costs go away for us,” Colbry says. Brunswick, with 47 students attending charter schools, reports that, at roughly $10,000 per student, it is losing close to half a million dollars a year. “I am a proponent of school choice, whether it’s charter schools or magnet schools,” says Brunswick superintendent Paul Perzanoski, “but I am not thrilled with the way Maine has chosen to fund them.”

10. Are there ways to fund charter schools without taking money from traditional public schools?

“In most states, when charter schools or magnet schools come on, the state as a whole funds them,” Perzanoski says. Some in Maine have pushed for the state to fund charter schools as separate administrative units. The current funding formula is many opponents’ primary objection. “It just adds insult to injury,” says Cornville Regional Charter School director Justin Belanger. “The district loses a student, and then it has to cut us a check.”

11. Can’t charter schools charge some tuition?

No. According to Maine law, “A public charter school may not charge tuition and may only charge such fees as may be imposed by other noncharter public schools in the state.”

12. Must all charter school teachers be certified?

Full-time teachers in a public charter school must either hold an appropriate teaching certificate or become certified within three years of the date they are hired. Teachers with an advanced degree, professional certification, or unique expertise or experience in their curricular area are exempted from the certification requirement. Charter school administrators do not need to be certified.

13. What is a virtual charter school?

A virtual public charter school is a public charter school that operates predominantly through an online program.

14. Is a virtual charter school a for-profit business?

No, but the vendor companies that supply their online curriculums are. Maine Connections Academy is one of 26 online schools operated by Connections Education, a subsidiary of London-based Pearson PLC, a publicly traded publisher of standardized tests and textbooks. Maine Virtual Academy, which received approval in November to begin contract talks with the state, is affiliated with K12 Inc. of Virginia, a for-profit vendor of online education and school products.

15. How are charter schools evaluated?

The Maine Charter School Commission has three-member teams that visit each school. The commission is mandated to prepare a report on each school by June 30 of its fourth year of operation. If serious issues arise, the commission has the authority to revoke a charter at any time or not to renew it at the end of five years. “We have a five-year contract,” says Cornville director Belanger. “If we do not fulfill our contract, we will be closed.”

16. Do charter school students have to demonstrate the same proficiencies as traditional public school students in order to graduate from high school?

That depends on who you ask. In 2012, the Maine Legislature passed a law mandating that all public school diplomas in Maine be awarded based on the mastery of knowledge and skills in eight content areas. After consulting the Maine Department of Education’s legal counsel, education commissioner Jim Rier has expressed the opinion that these requirements do not apply to public charter schools. The Maine Charter School Commission argues that even if charter schools are exempt, the commission has made the proficiency requirements part of the contracts they have entered into anyway. The DOE officials have said they will ask the Legislature to clarify that the new graduation requirements do apply to charter schools.

17. Can students with disabilities or special education needs attend charter schools?

Yes. Public charter schools are required to provide special education services just like traditional public schools. All have special ed teachers on staff.

18. Have any charter school applications been denied?

Yes. The Maine Charter School Commission has denied six applications, as many as it has approved. Another four have been withdrawn. In 2013, after the commission denied four out of five applicants, Governor LePage called on its members to resign, alleging intimidation by the Maine School Management Association, which represents Maine’s public school superintendents and school boards.

19. What’s next for the charter school movement in Maine?

As this issue went to press, a second virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy, was in contract discussions to open this fall. Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, says he expects applications for charter schools focused on environmental education, outdoor leadership, the arts, Montessori education, trades, health sciences, and tourism. Ultimately, Brainerd hopes the schools will be successful enough that the state will “decide to increase the cap by maybe two a year.”

20. How do public charter schools compare to traditional public schools in terms of performance?

Results are mixed. Proponents cite studies that find charter schools performing as well or better than traditional schools on standardized tests, while opponents cite studies concluding the opposite. A 2014 report from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at University of Maine reviewed empirical evidence and found it inconclusive. “Public charter schools are just like traditional public schools,” the report concluded. “Success depends upon a variety of factors. Consequently, the impacts of public charter schools should not be painted with one broad-brush stroke. Each should be judged on its own evidence and performance.”

Bottom line: The report card is still being written on Maine’s new public charter schools.

Photo: Rupert Ganzer/Flickr