Despite their success in Maine and across the country, elected officials continue to attack the remarkable progress of public charter schools, and Maine is no exception.

This session, Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland is the primary sponsor of a pair of bills that would drastically limit Maine students’ access to public charter school programs, separating families from innovative learning opportunities that better suit the needs of their children.

One bill, L.D. 307, would permanently cap the number of public charters that can operate in Maine at 10. When the bill enabling public charters in Maine was signed into law in 2011, it capped the number of charters that could operate within the first 10 years at 10 schools. Set to expire in July 2022, the cap would be made permanent if Brennan’s proposal is approved by lawmakers this session.

Another bill, L.D. 513, would cap enrollment at Maine’s two virtual public charter schools and prevent these schools from expanding their services to new age groups.

About 2,200 students currently receive an education at a public charter school in Maine, and roughly 400 more are on waiting lists. Brennan’s bills would unnecessarily and arbitrarily restrict enrollment in public charters at a time when Maine families want more choice and greater input in their child’s education.

Nine public charter schools are in operation today in Maine, and four different groups are vying for the 10th and final opening. Among the nine charters currently in operation are two online schools — Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy — that educate students from more than 100 districts across Maine. Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual public charter, serves more than 400 students and has nearly 100 more on a waiting list. It was just reauthorized to operate for another five years last November and seeks to increase enrollment and expand into new grade levels.

Brennan is no doubt advancing these proposals at the behest of charter opponents, who want you to believe that the success of charter schools comes at the expense of traditional public schools. This could not be further from the truth.

Traditional public schools and public charters are both integral components of the larger public school system and can succeed in tandem. In fact, when charters and traditional public schools are both working hard to deliver results, students come out on top and the public school system as a whole grows stronger.

Many perceive charters to be for-profit or private schools, but they are, in fact, public schools, which is why the assumption that their success means the failure of public schools holds no water. Critics also claim that public charters drain resources intended for district schools. But when a student enrolls in a public charter, the funding simply follows the student, as it should. This money does not belong to a particular school district or, more importantly, a labor union. This funding belongs to the student and their family — not union bosses or bureaucrats — to decide which school is the best fit to receive an education.

And perhaps to Brennan’s dismay, public charters are succeeding in closing the achievement gap for low-income students and students of color, particularly in urban areas like the one he represents. They’re also enrolling more special-needs students and developing innovative methods to improve the performance of their students relative to district schools.

The public agreement on charter schools is that these institutions will be afforded greater autonomy over day-to-day operations in exchange for a greater level accountability not seen in traditional public schools. Public charters need to be reauthorized every five years after undergoing a comprehensive evaluation process.

If public charters are not holding up their end of the bargain, they will not be reauthorized to operate — they will fail on their own.

Evidenced by the four groups vying to become the final public charter school in Maine, there is a market for charter public schooling in Maine. As long as we are holding these institutions accountable for the results they produce, they should be free to operate without caps that arbitrarily restrict access for Maine families.

 

Jacob Posik is director of communications with the Maine Heritage Policy Center in Portland.

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