AUGUSTA — When one to four charter schools open their doors this fall, they will be paving a new path for Maine, guided by a new law and accompanying regulations.

Outside Maine, however, the charter school movement is more than two decades old and has many lessons and examples to offer.

Based on that history, national pro-charter organizations say the policies Maine has on the books have strong points but also important drawbacks that could limit the development of high-quality charter schools.

Maine’s charter school law, passed last year, was rated best in the nation by the National Association for Public Charter Schools and is also well-regarded by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The Center for Education Reform, on the other hand, gives Maine a C-minus and says it’s too soon to tell what kind of environment state policies will create for charter schools.

All three groups said it’s key for states to balance strong authorization and accountability practices with autonomy for charter schools. Concerns include a cap on the number of charter schools initially allowed in Maine and the funding available to them.

The Maine Charter School Commission is negotiating a charter for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and will meet July 17 to consider the proposed Baxter Academy of Technology and Science in Portland. It also may reconsider an application for an elementary school in Cornville that was rejected last week.

The commission has yet to take action on the latest application, for a primary school in Gray called the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences.

Based on the model

Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools. Proponents say they offer much-needed alternatives to traditional public schools and foster educational innovation.

Out of the District of Columbia and the 41 states with charter school laws, Maine is No. 1, according to the National Association for Public Charter Schools, or NAPCS.

That’s because Maine’s law conforms most closely to the organization’s model law, published in 2009.

A group of charter school leaders from across the country wrote the model law based on their experiences and the research that existed about the effect of state policies, said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support.

“The goal was to create a model law that would help support both the growth of charter schools in the state, as well as the quality of those schools that were created,” Ziebarth said.

He said NAPCS worked closely with the Maine Association for Charter Schools and the legislation’s sponsors to write a good law in Maine.

“I think they did what more policymakers should do, which is, ‘Let’s take a look at best practices out there and use that as a starting point,'” Ziebarth said.

Under Maine law, local school boards and the state Charter School Commission are authorizers, meaning they can establish contracts with charter school operators. Authorizers set standards for charter schools and monitor their performance and compliance.

Ziebarth said Maine’s law requires performance-based contracts and provides for a rigorous application process, transparent oversight and fair renewal practices. At the same time, it gives charter schools a blanket waiver exempting them from most local and state regulations, with the exception of health and safety and civil rights laws.

Maine thus strikes a balance between flexibility and accountability for charter schools, Ziebarth said.

NAPCS opposes caps like the one Maine has imposed on the Charter School Commission. While schools authorized by local school boards are not limited, the commission can issue only 10 contracts in the first decade.

The commission received nine letters of intent and six applications this year.

“I think if you just look at the initial reaction in the number of letters of intent just in the first year, I think there’s a pent-up demand in the state for more options, both from families and educators,” Ziebarth said. “My guess is that in five years or so, or sooner, the state’s going to be up against that cap of 10 state-authorized schools and will need to revisit it to provide more options.”

Another downside of Maine’s law, in the view of NAPCS, is a lack of equitable funding for charter schools.

They can receive neither money for facilities nor the local additional funding that voters can choose to spend on district schools above what the state requires.

‘Political decision?’

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, which assists the entities that approve charter schools, agrees with most of the NAPCS recommendations on authorizers.

By NACSA’s evaluation, Maine’s law ranks among the best in the nation, along with laws in the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Louisiana, said Alex Medler, vice president of policy.

One drawback, Medler said, is a provision of the law stating that a charter may be revoked or allowed to lapse if the school “failed to meet or make sufficient progress toward the performance expectations set forth in the charter contract.”

About half of charter school laws include an absolute requirement that schools meet performance standards, while the other half include “progress” language like Maine’s.

“It sounds like a little phrase, but what it turns into is that the authorizer has to prove that there is no progress to close it,” Medler said. “You end up with, frankly, a more subjective, political decision. If it has improved in the last two years, it will argue that it’s making progress.”

In general, according to NACSA, it is too hard to close failing charter schools.

The pro-charter Center for Education Reform, or CER, also places a strong emphasis on authorizers. In fact, vice president for research Alison Consoletti said having strong, independent authorizers is the single most important factor in creating quality charter schools.

The center advocates for state commissions that are fully independent from other state agencies or universities and have their own funding and staff. Consoletti gave two examples: The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

The seven members of the Maine Charter School Commission are appointed by the State Board of Education, and three members overlap between the two boards. The Legislature did not appropriate funding for the commission.

In CER’s view, that is not adequate, and it is part of the reason Maine’s law ranked 27th in the country, receiving a C-minus.

“If you have the strong, independent authorizers, they can hold the charters accountable,” Consoletti said. “So the schools tend to be higher quality and better managed.”

CER also opposes caps and wants charter schools to receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools, including for facilities.

Beyond those identifiable drawbacks, the newness of charter schools in Maine counts against the state in CER’s grades, which take into consideration implementation. Some states have charter school laws but few or no schools operating.

“All we really had to go on was what the law said,” Consoletti said. “While some pieces, like the funding, seem to be better than average, it’s still difficult to see until a charter school is open, to see how the funding flows, how the law is going to work.”

Virtual on hold

Maine’s implementation already has raised concerns. Consoletti noted that the Charter School Commission — the only authorizer of virtual schools — decided to hold the two virtual-school applications it received for next year.

Ziebarth agreed that a good law is not sufficient but said it is necessary and that Maine is starting from a good place.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about how things will go in Maine,” he said. “One of the things that wasn’t, unfortunately, provided was some start-up dollars for the commission, which led to them getting off to a slower start than some people would have liked; but it seems that they’re taking their job very seriously.”

The commission has not worked quickly enough for Gov. Paul LePage, who objected to the delay in consideration of the virtual schools and suggested that commission members resign if they cannot manage their duties.

Citing an urgent need for alternatives to a public school system in crisis, LePage and his staff recommended approving the virtual schools, which are well-established in other states, and using the commission’s oversight powers to ensure school quality.

Medler, of the national authorizers group, said that would not be wise.

“There is a traditional public school system in state, and yes, there’s great urgency to create innovation, but they’re better served by slow and steady and good,” Medler said. “If it takes a little longer in the first year or two, that’s better for kids. Do not approve schools up front and give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll succeed and evaluate them later.”

There will be at least one and at most three charter schools in Maine this fall.

Medler said it is not unusual to see a lot of weak applications in the first year, and applicants soon learn what authorizers are looking for.

“I’m optimistic in the long run for Maine,” Medler said. “I think you’ll have a vibrant charter sector. Let people learn how to do this; let them put in place procedures and such. Quality will build quantity, not the other way around.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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