Education

Efforts to undermine public charter schools only hurt Maine students

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A lawmaker from Portland appears to have a personal vendetta against public charter schools. Rep. Michael Brennan is sponsoring a pair of troublesome bills this session that aim to hurt charter schools and the students who receive (and wish to receive) an education at these institutions.

The bills, LDs 307 and 513, would permanently cap the number of public charters that can legally operate in Maine and prevent virtual charters from increasing enrollment or expanding to new grade levels. Lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Monday held a public hearing on Rep. Brennan’s bills, as well as another measure sponsored by Sen. Matthew Pouliot that would remove the cap on charter schools in Maine.

Rep. Brennan’s bills are the product of organized labor’s Us vs. Them approach when it comes to public charters and traditional public schools.

Maine’s public charter school law, passed under former Gov. Paul LePage, set a cap on the number of charters that could legally operate within the first decade of the law’s enactment. Only 10 schools can operate in Maine until July 1, 2022. LD 307 would make this temporary cap permanent despite the fact that Maine’s charter system currently serves approximately 2,200 students and 400 more sit on waitlists to get into one of these schools.

LD 513 would limit total enrollment at Maine’s virtual public charters based on enrollment levels at the end of the current school year. There is no reason for this legislation other than to reduce choice and opportunity for Maine students and families.

The two virtual charter schools currently permitted to operate in Maine – Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy – both serve students from more than 100 districts across the state. Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual public charter, serves more than 400 students and has nearly 100 more on a waiting list. The school was recently reauthorized to operate for another five years and sought to increase enrollment and expand two new grade levels, but wasn’t approved for expansion during the reauthorization process.

To be clear, Rep. Brennan’s proposals are serving the interests of the teachers union, not Maine students. With increasing enrollment and a sizable waitlist, demand is exceeding the current supply of public charter schools in Maine. There is simply no legitimate reason to impose a permanent cap or otherwise limit the operations of charter schools.

Perhaps most troubling is that Rep. Brennan is not the only lawmaker going after charter schools this legislative session. On March 27, lawmakers on the education committee held a public hearing on LD 714, sponsored by Rep. James Handy, which would prohibit charter schools from expending funds on advertising (despite being required to by state law).

Testimony submitted by the Department of Education opposing  LD 714 stated, “not only do Public Charter Schools have the right to promote their schools either through engaging design and promotional materials available online or through direct advertising messages, they are required to advertise their availability and services. This requirement to recruit broadly was placed in statute to avoid having public charter schools in Maine enroll an exclusive group of students drawn from a small and likely privileged population.”

Not surprisingly, the only entity that submitted testimony in favor of LD 714 (excluding the bill sponsor) was, you guessed it, the Maine Education Association.

What these special interests do not want to accept, or want the public to know, is that our state has one of the strongest charter school laws in the nation. In the 10th edition of the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s Measuring up to the Model publication, Maine’s charter school law ranked eighth strongest among the 43 states that have enabled public charters. While the report does recommend greater accountability for full-time virtual public charters, it does not suggest Maine impose a permanent cap on their enrollment.

Maine students and families deserve choice and opportunity in education. If passed, the bills under consideration this session that seek to limit access to public charter schools will undermine the education of Maine students for years to come.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at MHPC. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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