Reform needed to expand access to charter schools in Maine

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The desire and need for school choice nationwide is now clearer than ever. Since the onset of the pandemic, already high levels of support for school choice have only grown stronger, increasing eight percentage points over the course of nearly two years. Furthermore, according to a 2021 survey, there is a stark disconnect between where parents want to educate their children and how they are actually educated. Although Maine currently offers some degree of school choice, there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to providing Maine families with the options that they seek.

Charter schools, which serve as an incredibly important facet of the school choice landscape in Maine, are significantly limited under current state law. Following the passage of LD 307 in 2019, the total number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state was capped at 10 indefinitely, a ceiling that has already been reached. The two charter schools operating on an entirely virtual basis, Maine’s Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, are further restricted under state law such that they can have a combined enrollment of no more than 1,000 students. This limit has become more noticeable in recent years as the number of students on a waitlist for these schools has doubled.

One of the biggest roadblocks facing the expansion of school choice in Maine today is the cap that the state legislature has placed on the total number of charter schools allowed to operate. Since 2011, when Maine first allowed charter schools to open their doors, total enrollment has grown to upwards of 2,600 students. By October 1, 2020, 562 students were sitting on a waitlist, a significant number of whom were in line for the one of the two virtual charter schools. Lifting the cap on charter schools, as well as on virtual charter school enrollment, would offer more Maine students the opportunity to learn in an environment best suited to their needs without being encumbered by a prohibitive waitlist.

Some argue that the cap promotes the maintenance of a “high bar” for charter school performance by giving the Maine Charter School Commission (MCSC) “the impetus to decide which schools are meeting the mission of the law.” Although this is certainly a noble aim, maintaining a cap on charter schools is not necessarily the best way to go about achieving excellence in the public charter school system.  Removing the cap on charter schools would in no way reduce the standards to which charter schools would be held, but rather it would save authorizers from having to arbitrarily pick one equally-qualified charter school over another.

Lifting the cap would also allow for students in rural parts of the state to have access to a charter school education. Maine’s charter schools are currently concentrated in southern and central Maine, leaving wide swaths of the state without access to an alternative public education. With the overall cap on charter schools in place, it is unsurprising and understandable that those looking to establish a charter school would seek to do so in locations that would allow them to serve the greatest number of potential students.

By removing the cap on charter schools, however, there would be greater incentive to establish charter schools in areas where they may only serve a handful of students, allowing more children in rural areas the opportunity to access the same quality and diversity of education as those living in the highest-populated areas. These benefits would be especially poignant for students living in localities that currently do not operate their own public school.

In addition to lifting caps, Maine should also expand the list of eligible charter school authorizers. Maine currently allows local school boards, the Maine Charter School Commission (MCSC), and collaboratives of local school boards to serve as authorizers. Although these groups undoubtedly serve an important role in the charter school system, adding more authorizers into the system, specifically education-focused nonprofits and Maine-based universities, would allow a greater number of quality charter schools the opportunity to open their doors to Maine students. Doing so would bring new perspectives into the fold and inject more innovation into Maine’s charter school system.

Allowing these alternative bodies to become authorizers is not a new concept. States across the country have granted a variety of different entities the ability to authorize charter schools. Sixteen states currently allow higher education institutions (HEIs) to serve as authorizers, and three states have extended this privilege to non-profit organizations (NPOs). As of the 2018-19 school year, 10.4% of students attending charter schools in the country are enrolled in HEI-authorized institutions and 2.7% in schools authorized by NPO’s.

The State University of New York’s (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute has proved highly successful, substantially outperforming neighboring traditional public schools. In Minnesota, the nonprofit organization Friends of Education has authorized 12 highperforming charter schools, four of which have been named National Blue-Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education since 2015. If done properly, the incorporation of HEI and NPO authorizers can play an important role in the curation and establishment of high-quality, high-performing, and highly-innovative charter schools.

Credit: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

For many, enrolling in the public school located in their home district may very well be the best option for both students and parents, but for the percentage of families for whom this is not the case, every option should be at their fingertips. Therefore, Maine should take action to remove the cap on charter schools and allow education-focused nonprofits and Maine-based universities to authorize charter schools. It’s high time that Maine takes action to transform the state’s educational landscape and provide families with the range of options they so clearly desire.

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