In June 2011, Maine became the 41st state to pass legislation that will allow 10 new charter schools to be established over the next decade. Starting in September 2012, students and teachers will begin to fill those classrooms.
With less than one year to go before Maine’s first charter school is open, parents, teachers and administrators are waiting to see how these new campuses will affect public education in one of the most rural and least populated states in the nation. Behind the scenes, educators and administrators are looking at new curriculum, trying to estimate attendance figures and calculating potential budgets.
The new law created a seven-member State Charter School Commission to authorize and oversee the new schools. The commission will decide where the new schools will be established, who will run them and which school districts will be affected.
There is no timetable in the law to complete these tasks and now teachers, administrators, legislators and parents all wait and watch as the law takes effect.
There certainly has been some speculation by educators, administrators, and citizen groups about where the first charter school will be located, and what type of need or niche it will fill, but officials at the Maine Department of Education will not name the first charter school its location.
Deborah Friedman, an official with the Maine Department of Education, said the current public school population is nearly 300,000 students.
According to the language in the new law, as many as 10 percent of the existing public school students may transfer to the newly formed charter schools. However, that 10 percent safeguard exists only for the first three years. After that, there aren’t any transfer limitations.
“Parents always want what’s best for their kids,” said Donna Buttarazzi, a mother of three from Arundel. She lives in a Maine school district where parents can already choose where they want to send their children. High school students from Arundel may go to Biddeford, Kennebunk, or Thornton Academy.
“If charter schools are the best option, that’s where mine will go,” she said.
When students move, the money associated with them transfers as well, and it is the potential loss of these funds that seems to worry administrators the most.
“The question is what to do to sustain the funding sources,” said Rebecca Pollard, an administrator at Good Will-Hinkley, a school in central Maine that provides alternative educational programs for at-risk students from across the state.
In the last 4 years, the school lost most of the state funding for its programming.
“We had to make some difficult decisions,” Pollard said.
Pollard said the school had a to find a way to reorganize just to keep its doors open and remain viable.
According to the school’s own tax documents, between 2009 and 2010 they received over $380,000 in donations and grants allowing them to open the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences as a private magnet school, but Pollard said they are also thinking about the idea of converting to a charter school.
“The money will stay with the student,” she said about the benefits of becoming a charter school. “We won’t have to always fundraise.”
“Public education is an easy target, a soft target,” said Allan Young, a member of the Maine Principals Association and former principal of Sanford High School.
Young and other public school officials know all too well that one school’s gain will be another school’s loss. Young said that the state does not expect to close any existing public schools when they authorize and open the new charter schools. State funds will simply shift.
He said charter schools are all about unique solutions and trying to create a small public school to serve a specific market or niche.
“I think charter schools are all about innovation,” he said. “In many ways, we are trying to juggle up the public education system.”
However, if the schools became too large and too popular, they may compete directly with other schools in the district.
“School districts are under financial pressure and the addition of a charter school only adds to that pressure,” he said.
Young explained that if charter schools that become too large, they will also face the same problems as any other public school their size – low test scores and graduation rates and high drop out rates.
Like other public schools, “when they lose their focus, they’ll be in trouble,” he said.
Young has been an educator for over 25 years and to him, the state of Maine is now trying to provide the structure and regulations that surround the new law so new schools will be focused, sustainable and successful.
Devin Beliveau, a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives, was instrumental in getting the bill before the Legislature. A Kittery resident and Thornton Academy teacher, Beliveau has experience in both charter schools and secondary education.
“The charter school movement has become popular so public schools can solve a long-standing problem,” he said.
The nagging question for Beliveau, and the state, is whether a local educational problem translates to a statewide concern. If it does, that’s one reason for a state authorized charter school
At this point, Beliveau said is not sure how that will happen or how many schools that will translate to.
“The schools work best when they come from the local level and are the result of a grassroots effort,” he said.
What worries him, and other legislators is what might happen when the state commission determines a need and authorizes a new school, he said.
“What happens to Bangor public schools when the state commission decides we need a new school in the city of Bangor. It would be much better if the city decided they needed a new school,” he said.
“Local districts will be very careful,” he said, referring to budgets and financial impact.
Beliveau said money, personnel, and union issues would all soon make their way to the new charter schools.
“I don’t know what will happen, exactly,” he said.
Linda Valentino (D-Saco) said the new law also improves the states state’s standing with the federal government.
She said President Obama’s administration was instrumental in passing the recent Race To The Top initiative. This new federal educational plan provides a pool of up to $4.35 billion for states that create profound new educational programs.
States that previously did not allow charter schools could now apply for these federal funds to augment their educational budgets.
One criterion used when deciding who would receive the money was the number and type of charter schools in a particular state.
Valentino said she was confident that Maine’s new law allowing charter schools has enough safeguards in it to protect existing public schools.
While the commission can only authorize 10 new schools during a 10-year period, the law does allow local school districts to authorize a charter school.
“There aren’t any restrictions to the number of charters that may authorized by local districts,” Valentino said.
Beliveau sponsored an amendment to the law that prohibits corporate organizations from running multiple charter schools within the state.
“We don’t want to turn this into a mass-marketing effort,” she said.
Valentino said the state and local school districts want to establish locally run schools that address either a statewide concern or a local issue. They do not want schools that are nothing more than branch offices for a corporate organization.
“Some will be very successful and they will serve a niche market,” she said.
For both Beliveau and Valentino, the outcome is not clear yet and as they describe it, most of their colleagues are anxiously waiting for the results as applicants work toward the day when Maine’s first charter school open its doors and the students arrive.