Saturday, May 18, 2013
AUGUSTA -- When one to four charter schools open their doors this fall, they will be paving a new path for Maine, guided by a new law and accompanying regulations.
Outside Maine, however, the charter school movement is more than two decades old and has many lessons and examples to offer.
Based on that history, national pro-charter organizations say the policies Maine has on the books have strong points but also important drawbacks that could limit the development of high-quality charter schools.
Maine's charter school law, passed last year, was rated best in the nation by the National Association for Public Charter Schools and is also well-regarded by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
The Center for Education Reform, on the other hand, gives Maine a C-minus and says it's too soon to tell what kind of environment state policies will create for charter schools.
All three groups said it's key for states to balance strong authorization and accountability practices with autonomy for charter schools. Concerns include a cap on the number of charter schools initially allowed in Maine and the funding available to them.
The Maine Charter School Commission is negotiating a charter for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and will meet July 17 to consider the proposed Baxter Academy of Technology and Science in Portland. It also may reconsider an application for an elementary school in Cornville that was rejected last week.
The commission has yet to take action on the latest application, for a primary school in Gray called the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences.
Based on the model
Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools. Proponents say they offer much-needed alternatives to traditional public schools and foster educational innovation.
Out of the District of Columbia and the 41 states with charter school laws, Maine is No. 1, according to the National Association for Public Charter Schools, or NAPCS.
That's because Maine's law conforms most closely to the organization's model law, published in 2009.
A group of charter school leaders from across the country wrote the model law based on their experiences and the research that existed about the effect of state policies, said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support.
"The goal was to create a model law that would help support both the growth of charter schools in the state, as well as the quality of those schools that were created," Ziebarth said.
He said NAPCS worked closely with the Maine Association for Charter Schools and the legislation's sponsors to write a good law in Maine.
"I think they did what more policymakers should do, which is, 'Let's take a look at best practices out there and use that as a starting point,'" Ziebarth said.
Under Maine law, local school boards and the state Charter School Commission are authorizers, meaning they can establish contracts with charter school operators. Authorizers set standards for charter schools and monitor their performance and compliance.
Ziebarth said Maine's law requires performance-based contracts and provides for a rigorous application process, transparent oversight and fair renewal practices. At the same time, it gives charter schools a blanket waiver exempting them from most local and state regulations, with the exception of health and safety and civil rights laws.
Maine thus strikes a balance between flexibility and accountability for charter schools, Ziebarth said.
NAPCS opposes caps like the one Maine has imposed on the Charter School Commission. While schools authorized by local school boards are not limited, the commission can issue only 10 contracts in the first decade.
(Continued on page 2)