While some may consider the upcoming closure of Harpswell Coastal Academy a failure for Maine’s charter school system, nothing could be further from the truth. The members of the Maine Charter School Commission aptly decided in October 2022 that the school’s chronic absenteeism, low enrollment, poor academic performance and an uncertain financial situation warranted their denial of the school’s renewal application.

In essence, the system worked — just as it’s supposed to.

When Maine’s 125th Legislature passed L.D. 1553 in 2011 to create the public charter school system, the intent was to give parents another choice among Maine’s public, magnet, private, religious, online and homeschooling options. In the nearly 12 years since it was signed into law, charter schools have been an important option for students who may not thrive in a traditional school environment.

The first charter school in Maine was the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which opened in 2011 soon after the law took effect and had 52 students enrolled by the following year. The latest, the Ecology Learning Center, began operating in 2020 with a class of 47 and now has 102 students. In all, there are over 2,700 students enrolled in Maine’s 10 charter schools this year; and the concept has proven to be a valuable alternative for parents along with the various private, religious and traditional public schools within their proximity.

The distinct differences with charter schools are their independence, the students they serve and the approaches these schools take in teaching them. Because some students don’t do well in the traditional school setting, these schools offer specialized curriculums centered on specific subjects like performing arts or science.

While many critics initially believed these schools were a threat to public school funding, they are public schools themselves and the state belayed those concerns when the Legislature changed the funding method in 2015. In doing so, no particular school district is in jeopardy of losing too much funding to a nearby charter school.


However, the growth of these mission-based schools has hit an impasse, largely due to an indefinite 10-school limit put in place in 2019 by Maine’s Legislature when they removed the limit’s sunset and capped the enrollment of virtual schools at 1,000. Maine’s governor let both bills become law without her signature, despite her Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) call for an independent review of how the schools have affected Maine’s scholastic landscape.

Unfortunately, the review never happened, although Maine Department of Education asked for it a full two years prior to the end of the 10-year transition period.

So where do we go from here? The closure of Harpswell Coastal Academy presents a unique opportunity to charter a new school elsewhere in Maine, an option we haven’t had for years. It’s also a chance for us to look at our state’s entire educational system, especially in light of the low math and reading scores of Maine’s fourth- and eighth-graders released last fall in the “Nation’s Report Card” issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

There has also been a lot of discussion both in Maine and nationally about what role parents have in the education of their children, especially in light of school boards shutting down parents’ voices or ignoring their rights. There’s ample evidence that school administrators need more accountability and transparency with their communities; and funding and headcounts are two obvious ways of accomplishing that if parents have alternatives.

Still, sometimes it is that disconnect between parents and school administrators where teachers are caught in the middle. While some teachers deserve more scrutiny, most schoolchildren you ask will tell you they love their teachers — especially elementary students — and most parents will agree.

School choice has been a Maine tradition for a long time and charter schools are among the latest options available to parents; but it has also depended upon which zip code you live in. It’s time we move forward to the next phase in growing alternatives for parents to choose from, regardless of what town they live in.

And with choice comes power. Parents should have the power to question the standards under which their children learn and have options to ensure positive academic outcomes. It is their children, after all.

Matt Pouliot of Augusta is serving his third term representing Senate District 15. He is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee and the new Joint Select Committee on Housing.

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