As we approach the ten-year anniversary of Maine’s historic public charter school system, there is much to celebrate about how the expansion of educational choice has benefited Maine’s families, students, and taxpayers.
Yet lawmakers in Augusta are poised to halt this progress by permanently capping the number of charter schools permitted to operate in Maine. Under the law, LD 307, which has passed both chambers of the legislature and sits on Governor Mills’ desk, only 10 charter schools could be authorized in Maine.
With nine charter schools already in operation and multiple groups vying to create a tenth, LD 307 is an attempt to undermine a movement that has exposed the inadequacies of Maine’s traditional public education system.
Maine’s charter schools benefit thousands of students who feel alienated or unchallenged in traditional school settings. The public hearing on LD 307 triggered an outpouring of opposition to the bill by parents who had struggled with their local school system’s inability to nurture the unique needs of the child, and for whom Maine’s charter schools provided a desperately-needed alternative.
Capping the number of charter schools sends a clear signal to other parents hoping to find a better learning environment for their child: Maine is more interested in bolstering a failed “one-size-fits-all” educational system than providing the best opportunities for its students.
Not only does the academic literature find that charter schools improve student achievement, but they do so at a lower cost. Maine’s charter schools spent about $11,700 per pupil last year, compared to a statewide average of $12,200 for the 2017-18 school year. Perhaps the best evidence of charter schools’ value is the fact that attendance is so coveted that hundreds of children currently sit on waitlists to become students.
Not only that, but charter schools deliver positive spillover effects for students who attend traditional public schools. A powerful predictor of a traditional public school’s performance is the extent to which parents have other educational options for their children. As has been demonstrated again and again, the threat of losing students to charter schools consistently drives local school districts to improve educational quality.
Supporters of LD 307, led by John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association, argue that capping the number of charter schools in Maine will “focus the attention [of the Charter Commission] squarely on the charters we currently have open, rather than continue to expand more schools.”
But the path to creating a new charter school is not easy, and the Charter Commission holds new school applicants to exceptionally high standards. Each year, the Charter Commission also reviews existing charter schools’ performance to ensure quality.
The best way to determine how many charter schools should exist is not to impose an arbitrary cap, but to make smart, merit-based decisions about each proposed and existing charter school — which the Charter Commission has consistently done, according to an analysis by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Maine’s current charter schools are not perfect, nor can they easily be described as a monolithic group. They’ve embraced a variety of educational philosophies and produced varying results.
But that’s just it: Not every school is perfect for every learner or family, which is why school choice is so important, and why arbitrarily limiting the number of charter schools in Maine would be a mistake.