With two bills held over from the last session, legislators will once again consider the idea of creating charter schools when they reconvene in January.
This time, proponents are arguing for the creation of public charter schools, which are simply public schools set up for specific purposes.
The public charter school must be open to all students who apply, nonsectarian, and organized as a nonprofit corporation or financially autonomous cooperative.
Funding would be provided by the state on a per-student basis equal to the average amount spent per pupil statewide. The charter refers to a contract the school has with a body such as a school district or nonsectarian post-secondary institution, which would establish a board to make sure the charter school is living up to the contract.
Charter schools are a chance to reach students languishing in public schools, an outlet for teacher creativity, and an opportunity for parents to choose or set up a school that suits their child, said Rep. Judy Powers, D-Rockport, sponsor of the public charter school legislation.
While applauding the success of Maine public schools, including those in her own legislative district, Powers pointed out that not all students thrive in the public schools.
“This is an opportunity to reach them,” she said. The point of public charter schools is “to address the needs of certain students and the energy of certain teachers.”
Under her legislation, to give the charter schools the freedom to innovate, they are exempt from the state laws governing schools — except those concerning health, safety and civil rights — as well as from the spending restrictions normally attached to certain kinds of state funding.
Accountability rests on the charter and the school meeting the performance standards in it.
But the ultimate measure of success is parents keeping their children in the charter school, said Judith Jones, coordinator of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “Parents have the power to leave, so staff can’t take them for granted.”
The staff must persuade them to enroll their children and then must educate them up to expectations to make sure the parents keep them in school, said Jones, who seven years ago was co-founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school support group in Washington, D.C.
Over the past 10 years the Legislature has dealt with a fistful of charter school bills, said Sen. Mary Small, R-Bath, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee and a co-sponsor of Powers’ bill.
There seems to be a continuing groundswell of interest in charter schools and the current bills are more thought-through and fleshed-out than prior ones, Small said.
Along with Powers’ proposal is a measure from Rep. Carol Weston, R-Montville, that would create a “charter school authority,” similar to the Finance Authority of Maine.
The purpose, Weston said, is “to give real uniformity to the chartering process.”
In an attempt to gain the support of the state teachers union, the Maine Educational Association, Powers’ bill would allow charter school teachers to bargain collectively or to form a professional association.
Since 1991, three dozen states plus the District of Columbia have approved charter school legislation. From four charter schools in the 1992-93 school year, the number has grown to 1,680 this school year, according to the National Charter School Directory.
The two charter school measures have incorporated elements of legislation already approved in other states, according to the sponsors.
According to a report on charter schools released in May that was funded by the U.S. Education Department, “Nearly seven of 10 newly created charter schools seek to realize an alternative vision of schooling and an additional two of 10 were founded especially to serve a special target population of students.”
Under Powers’ proposal, just five new charter schools, with a total enrollment of 200 students, could be established in the first year the law is in effect.
According to the national report, the median enrollment of all charter schools is about 132 students per school.
The measure would also permit existing schools — public or private — to convert into public charter schools.
Jones said she has heard that some rural schools facing consolidation see the legislation as their salvation.
Public hearings before the Legislature’s Education Committee on Powers’ and Weston’s bills are scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the armory on Western Avenue, Augusta.