On Jan. 17, 2001, the Maine Association of Charter Schools met in Bangor to discuss the possibility of creating charter schools here.

It was another decade before the Maine Legislature passed a law to allow charter schools to serve students in need of more options. It soon became clear, however, that the law would not result in significantly more choices for students, but rather preserve the status quo.

Maine’s mechanism for setting up charter schools has proven to be weak and ineffective. This was most recently exhibited in January, when the state charter school commission rejected four out of five charter applicants.

Gov. Paul LePage rightly called the commission’s rejections “a dereliction of duty.”

He also said, “What we are talking about is a commission moving far too slowly and putting political favors ahead of the needs of our children.”

The commission’s parsimonious approval of new schools displayed why Maine epitomizes the wrong way to go about charter school authorization.

A May analysis from the Center for Education Reform, titled “Charter School Authorizers: The Truth About State Commissions,” explains how Maine’s charter school commission has offered no evidence of success.

“[C]harter school commissions, like those currently in place in states like Maine … offer no evidence of success, have been subject to more political oversight and bureaucratic interference than any other chartering institutions, and have shunned many charter applications, even by proven providers, because they employ external consultants who have varying degrees of expertise,” the report said.

What separates independent authorizers from state commissions is their freedom from public entities.

Though approved by the state, authorizers typically do not operate under boards of education and are free from existing bureaucratic frameworks. This means they are able to objectively review charter school applicants without political interference.

The commission in Maine is composed of state appointees with a propensity to establishment interests and no practical experience in actually setting up charter schools.

Since the 2011 charter law was enacted, only two small charter schools have opened their doors to students, with another three finally approved. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder LePage told the commission that Maine needs people “with backbones.”

Although Maine is very homogeneous, most families’ median income is below the national average and 12 percent live in poverty.

While some 83 percent of students graduate on time, high school graduates make up only 34.4 percent of the population; 21.6 percent have some college, 10 percent have a two-year degree and 17.9 percent have a bachelor’s degree.

This is clearly not the picture of a state where education can be ignored, and many young adults lack what is necessary to raise the bar for themselves and their families. Only 32 percent of Maine’s fourth-graders can read at grade level, and only 45 percent are proficient in math.

Those numbers don’t get better for eighth-graders, with only 38 percent proficient in reading and 39 percent in math.

LePage’s bill, L.D. 1529, would have been a bold step in the right direction, by removing the limit on the number of charter schools approved to 10 within 10 years and allowing for multiple and independent charter school authorizers.

LePage is showing that he’s got the backbone to stand up for the students of Maine; it’s unfortunate legislators couldn’t do the same.

The public university in Michigan and the State University of New York network have designated authorizers and have a proven track record of approving quality charter schools.

University authorizers also tend to be more innovative with K-12 curriculums, and often have the necessary infrastructure to oversee successful charters.

In Michigan, this has led to public university authorizers being responsible for the vast majority of the state’s nearly 350 charter schools.

These university authorizers oversee all aspects of approved charter schools, monitoring their compliance with state laws as well as academic performance.

It’s time for Maine legislators to act on this potential, and produce a system that will foster the most amount of opportunity for students.

As far as LePage is concerned, they’re duty bound to do so.

Jeanne Allen is the president of the Center for Education Reform, the leading voice and advocate for lasting, substantive and structural education reform in the United States since 1993, according to its website.

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