What the Heck is a Charter School?
Should Maine have more charter schools?
Most people know that charter schools are controversial but don’t really know why. Supporters of charter schools say that the schools foster innovation; critics object to money being sucked out of public education. The question that you may perhaps have been too embarrassed to ask is: what exactly is a charter school? Don’t feel alone if you don’t know; according a recent Gallup Poll, the same question is stumping most Americans.
So, what IS a charter school? Well, charter schools get most of their funds from a mixture of local, State, and Federal tax dollars. They have this mixture of funding sources in common with traditional public schools. But that is where their similarities end.
Unlike most public educational institutions, charter schools operate under “charters” managed by people who are not members of boards of education. All charter schools have an an “authorizer”, which is an entity that grants the charter to the school. The authorizer, in other words, has the power to open the school. In some states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, the state itself is the only “authorizer” permitted to open charter schools. But in other states, “authorizers” can also be other institutions, and are usually local universities or non-profits; or else the authorizers can also be boards of education.
These authorizers issue charters to groups of people to run the school. The authorizer is responsible for monitoring the school’s performance for the whole time that it has a contract. Usually, after three to five years, the authorizer reviews the charter school and decides whether the school can stay open based on the school’s performance.
So, given this structure, you can see that almost anyone can run a charter school: parents, education experts, or even just a group of friends who really care about education. And since charter schools are independently managed, they are not subject to many of the restrictions that are placed on traditional schools.
That means, for instance, that the local school board can’t tell charter schools which food suppliers to use for the children’s lunches, what type of curriculum to teach, or even whether or not to hire teachers who belong to teachers’ unions.
And, unlike traditional public schools — which are regional — charter schools can turn students away if their seats are too limited. If charter schools receive more applications than the schools have seats available, the charter schools are required to hold lotteries for students.
This limited access to charter schools is one of several problems that worry some parents and students in Maine.
On March 23, 2017, Maine State Senator Garrett Mason (R) introduced a bill to lift the existing cap on the number of charter schools that are allowed in the state. Currently, there are only nine charter schools in Maine, including two schools that are virtual, and a tenth is waiting to open. According to the State Senator, there are many more Maine charter schools that would like to open, but they currently can’t, because of a previous bill that he himself had introduced and which passed in 2011, which capped Maine charter schools at a total of ten.
Why did State Senator Mason cap the number of Maine charter schools in the first place? And why does he want to remove the cap now? State Senator Mason explains that he had initially wanted a “transition period” before adding new charter schools – but now feels that this is no longer necessary. Now he wants to go full speed ahead:
“Listen, it is possible in our time to have individual education for every student. And charter schools are a piece of that model,” State Senator Mason told Maine’s WABI radio recently in an interview.
But critics of his plans abound in Maine. One worry these critics have is that rural public schools will be further weakened. Mt. Abram Regional High School, for instance, in rural Strong, ME, serves nearby children, but the next closest school is fifty or 60 miles away. Parents and educators who are concerned about rural schools fear that charter schools will pull students away from existing schools and leave those public schools so underpopulated that they will close. Susan Prat is Superintendent of the district in which Abram High is located. She and other critics fear that charter schools will drain wealthier children from rural school. This, they fear, will create a vicious cycle of defunding: when regular public schools lose those richer students who can more easily travel, then the public schools left behind lose funding — leaving the kids who need more money for their education with even less money actually spent on them. Ms. Prat shared her concerns with the radio outlet Maine Public:
“[In] rural western Maine, where schools are hours away from each other, getting students to another destination would be close to impossible.”
On the “pro” side, supporters of charter schools in Maine are excited about having more parental choice and about what they see as healthy competition. Their view is that the better schools should always win out.
This is the reason that State Senator Mason gives for wanting now to relieve the 2011 cap he had placed on charter schools.
“It will give them [the parents] the opportunity to [let their children] go outside [of] the traditional public education system and go into another public option which is what our charter schools do.”
On April, 18th, the State Senator tweeted that removing the cap would “foster more innovation”.
It may be, as supporters claim, that more school choice will give some parents and students better options; and it may also be true, as critics point out, that lower-income kids will, as usual, bear the brunt of the change.
Have you had good or bad experiences with charter schools? Do you think Maine needs to lift this cap? Or is there more to think about with charter schools and school choice before passing this bill? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, share this article throughout your social networks, and contact Maine State Senator Mason (R-ME) directly with this article, and with your thoughts, by tweeting him: twitter @garrettmason.