AUGUSTA – Supporters of public charter schools told lawmakers Thursday that the schools would improve the quality of education in Maine by giving students and parents options.

“Too many children are not finding their needs met by the traditional delivery of education,” said Roger Brainerd, who leads the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “The charter school model is a structural framework for injecting innovation in education.”

Proposed legislation would establish the State Charter School Commission to oversee creation of the schools in Maine. Under L.D. 1553, public schools could convert to charter schools, or new schools could be founded.

All state and local funds would follow any student who opted to attend a charter school, except the student’s home school district could keep as much as 1 percent to cover administrative costs.

Supporters say they envision schools for at-risk students, or schools that specialize in particular subject areas. They say the bill would make Maine eligible for federal funds, particularly Race to the Top money, that the state cannot get now because it does not allow charter schools.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the bill’s sponsor, said charter schools would give parents another public school option for their children.

“For far too long, we’ve tried to pound a square peg into a round hole,” Mason said. “I think this is a good step toward individualized education for every Maine student and making sure the system works for everyone.”

While supporters are enthusiastic about the possibilities, the Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals’ Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association all opposed the bill.

Roger Shaw, president of the superintendents association, provided written testimony that called the bill the “death knell for a number of small schools in rural Maine.” He also testified in person, expressing concern about limited education dollars.

“Will we be closing our small rural schools in order to open small elite schools in more populated parts of Maine?” he wrote. “How can we endorse any proposal to divert scarce educational dollars to create charters that nationwide have not made significant improvements in student performance?”

Dick Durost, executive director of the principals’ association, raised several objections, including language that would allow students who attend charter schools to participate in extracurricular activities at the schools they decide to leave.

“It gives them the best of both worlds,” he said, so it’s an unfair advantage for those students.

One person who has experience with charter schools spoke neither for nor against the bill.

Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery, said he worked at good charter schools in Massachusetts and California, and that Maine should make sure its legislation is strong if it is going to allow the schools.

“I do believe charter schools should be legal in Maine if they are done right,” said Beliveau, a high school history teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco.

He said the state should make sure that the schools fill an identified local need, provide something different from what’s already available, and be managed by “local educational leaders, not for-profit school management companies.”

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen testified in support of the bill. He urged lawmakers to act in this session, even though there have been discussions about delaying action until next year.

Bowen said the bill would set strict standards, and he estimated that no more than five charter schools would open across the state over the next five years.

Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston, asked Bowen what would happen to a local school if many children left for a charter school.

“What do we have left?” he said. “We’re left with all the kids whose parents don’t give a damn.”

Bowen said charter schools in other states typically draw at-risk students — sometimes children of parents who struggled in school — not students who are already successful.

The Maine Association for Charter Schools, based in Union, has been working to show broad support for the idea in recent days. On Tuesday, it released a survey by Pan Atlantic SMS in Portland that showed 65 percent support for charter schools. The next day, it announced that the State Board of Education had voted to support the legislation to allow charter schools in Maine.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter schools, and proponents said Maine can benefit from their years of experience.

Judith Jones, a member of the charter schools group, said she and others have been working since the 1990s on charter school legislation.

“They are schools of choice,” she said. “Students and parents get to decide if you’re going to attend. You do not have to be labeled a failure before you can attend.”

On the other side, Maureen King, president of the school boards association, said the bill is a “national template” that is better suited for large cities, not a rural state like Maine.

“This legislation would allow taxpayer dollars to be used to support what amounts to private schools serving a select group of students without public input,” she said. “It is a bad bill and a bad idea for Maine, and I urge you to vote against it.”

The committee took no vote. It was uncertain late Thursday when the committee would hold a work session and vote.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com