Hundreds of bills failed to become law in the First Regular Session of the 129th Legislature. Among them was LD 438, a proposal to remove the temporary cap of 10 on the number of public charter schools permitted to operate in Maine. The cap on public charter schools was supposed to expire on July 1, 2022, but removing it before the deadline was the preference of thousands of students and parents across the state who enjoy school choice or wish to enroll their child(ren) in one of these institutions.
Unfortunately, the legislature decided to go in the opposite direction and passed LD 307, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland, a bill that made permanent the once-temporary cap on public charter schools allowed to operate. Governor Mills then allowed the bill to become law without her signature on June 15, 2019.
By placing a permanent cap on the number of public charter schools allowed to operate in the state, the legislature is limiting future school choice in Maine and robbing students of the opportunity to receive an education that best fits their individual needs.
This week, the Maine Charter School Commission (MCSC) unanimously approved The Ecology Learning Center to fill the tenth and final slot available in the state. The Ecology Learning Center will be located on the Unity College campus and will serve high school students. Due to the new permanent cap, Maine’s education commissioner will no longer be able to accept registrations from either local school boards or the MCSC.
The Ecology Learning Center is slated to open in September 2020 and will be able to enroll around 96 students. Maine’s public charter schools provide an alternative to traditional public schools and have become increasingly popular since the 2012-13 school year.
Approximately 2,454 students were enrolled in a public charter school during the 2018-19 school year and hundreds more sit on waitlists to become a student. Nationwide, approximately 3 million students attend public charter schools, up from 2 million in 2011. The number of public charters has grown from 5,619 in 2011 to 7,062 in 2016.
Considering that demand is growing and groups continue applying to become a public charter in Maine, it is illogical to place a permanent cap on these schools, especially since all of the available slots have now been filled.
After all, there are plenty of good reasons why a parent would want to send their child to a public charter school. For one, not all students fit the mold for the traditional public school system, so parents may seek an alternative that better fits their child’s needs.
Further, some public charter schools offer specialized education in specific subjects. For example, the newly-approved Ecology Learning Center will likely offer courses tailored to natural sciences and the environment when it opens its doors next fall. Likewise, the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science offers students a curriculum tailored to STEM fields.
Legislators should want to give Maine students and families more choice, not less. To do so, they must eliminate or increase the cap on public charters permitted to operate in our state.
Charters do not threaten the traditional public school system, and most of them currently have waitlists full of students eager to enroll. Legislators should view public charters as institutions that compliment the traditional public school system, not something that endangers them.