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Maine: Rules May Slow Charter Schools

by Susan McMillan
Kennebec Journal
November 27, 2011

AUGUSTA — Maine’s new law authorizing charter schools says they can start operating July 1, but potential founders say the proposed enrollment rules would force them to delay opening until 2013.

The rule says that a student’s parent must submit a declaration of intention to enroll by the third Tuesday in January before school begins. They must commit to enroll by Feb. 15.

However, it is highly unlikely that any charter school will be approved by then. Four of the seven members of the State Charter School Commission will not be appointed until the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“It will be difficult to get written declaration of intent two months before we even know if our charter is approved,” said Justin Belanger, chairman of the Friends of Cornville Regional Charter School Board. “It is your quintessential cart-before-the-horse problem.”

A charter school is a public school, attended voluntarily, that uses an innovative curriculum or creates educational settings for students who don’t thrive in traditional public schools.

Several people who spoke at a hearing held Tuesday at the Burton M. Cross State Office Building on the proposed regulations, which also dealt with funding and transportation, said the proposed enrollment window is too narrow and too early.

Momentum slowed

The town of Cornville is paying to heat and maintain the old Cornville Elementary building, which Skowhegan-based Regional School Unit 54 closed last year, with the idea that it could house a charter school.

“The momentum is currently on our side,” Belanger said. “We are concerned that it may be difficult to keep the momentum and the building if the school’s opening were delayed another year.”

Belanger requested a waiver of the enrollment window for the first year, at least.

Other people hoping to start charter schools said the rule would be a problem for students as well as for schools.

The law authorizing charter schools makes special mention of “at-risk pupils” who struggle in school, but the enrollment window would hurt those students most, said Glenn Cummings, president of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

“The kind of students who are often very vulnerable, who are trying to hold on in school and figure out where they’re going, their personal lives are often very unstable,” Cummings said. “They could move two or three times between January and September. This would really greatly diminish the kinds of students who can access these alternative forms of education.”

John Jacques, who leads a group planning to start the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, said he hopes the state will eliminate the enrollment window altogether.

Often, a family will not realize that a traditional public school is not working for them until well into the school year, Jacques said.

Jacques said his group has been working for about nine months and is well positioned to open in September. They are putting together a curriculum and looking to lease up to 20,000 square feet in downtown Portland.

They had hoped to have their charter authorized in April or May, then hire teachers and spend the summer preparing for school.

Other charter schools would operate on similar timelines, Jacques said.

“There’s no doubt that if these rules stand, no one would be able to open in September 2012,” he said.

Forty other states allow charter schools, and most do not set an enrollment period, said Jeanne Allen, president of the national Center for Education Reform.

“The schools do it individually, as should be the case,” she said.

Charter school proponents also requested more protections in the funding process for the schools.

Under the law, a school district will transfer money to a charter school for each student living in the district and attending the school. The regulations set up a process for resolving funding disputes that may arise between a charter school and a school district, but they do not set a time limit for resolution.

The charter school proponents voiced concerns that disputes could drag on while schools need to pay their bills.

Maine Association for Charter Schools board chairwoman Judith Jones cited a cautionary example of New Hampshire, where the first charter school shut down temporarily because of a funding dispute with city government. It has since closed for good.

Traditional schools object

Organizations representing traditional public schools also raised objections to the proposed regulations.

Maine School Management Association Deputy Executive Director Sandra MacArthur, who spoke on behalf of a number of administrative groups, said sections of the rules were “written by the national charter school industry.”

“These rules seem to be written to promote charter schools rather than regulate them and provide critical oversight of their operations,” she said.

Maine’s charter school law says the schools cannot discriminate against students with disabilities, but MacArthur said the rules give schools room to counsel those students not to apply.

Other sections provide a loophole for the State Charter School Commission to exceed the 10-school limit, MacArthur said.

“If these rules are allowed to stand, we will be using taxpayer dollars to create schools that are not truly public,” she said.

Jones said that, despite working with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter proponents in Maine based their work on needs here.

“We are the 41st state, so it would be foolish not to learn the lessons, not to work with other states,” she said.

The state should minimize regulation of charter schools because it “kills innovation,” Jones said.

According to the law, charter schools may be authorized by the State Charter School Commission, a local school board or a regional collaborative of authorizers.

Only the commission can authorize a virtual charter school, and it is limited to 10 schools in the first decade.

An authorizer must issue a request for proposals that sets forth “the authorizer’s vision and the performance framework” for the school. The authorizer has 90 days to decide on an application after it is submitted.

The Department of Education will accept comment on the proposed rules until Dec. 2. After reviewing all comments, the department will forward a final proposed rule to the Secretary of State’s office. The Legislature also will review the rules before they are adopted.