SOUTH PORTLAND – Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s May 19 Maine Voices column got me to wondering what it is that charter schools might do educationally that traditional public schools can’t (“Charter schools could offer more diverse public option to Maine families”).

In essence, he pointed out all the ways the two kinds of schools are the same by listing what they are not: not private, not religious, not exclusionary or elitist.

Charter schools may not discriminate; neither can public schools.

Charter schools need a transportation plan; public schools do that! So I thought a little more about this and re-read L.D. 1553.

It would take too much space to reproduce the paragraphs and sections of L.D. 1553 which, in my view, provide the avenue for current public schools to incorporate or include within their current walls and policies all the educational capabilities that L.D. 1553 would designate to charter schools.

So, it seems that any current school can be a public charter school and can provide all the services and features of public charter schools.

Further, it seems that they are eligible, through their local school boards and districts, to do just that. So why do we need legislation for something that already exists, or authorizes the creation of a parallel system?

Presumably, because current traditional schools don’t provide choice, flexibility and innovation. So why doesn’t the commissioner make another listening tour and visit those schools that do provide choice, flexibility and innovation? There must be some in the state; there must be many.

And not just the schools, but also the teachers. There is an annual “Teacher of the Year” award and although only one person receives it, I suppose that hundreds get nominated for good reason.

Perhaps these are sources for choice, flexibility and innovation.

So why not provide through the commissioner’s office a clearinghouse of information provided by these teachers and schools of excellence from which other schools may garner some best practices? It would seem cheaper, less bureaucratic and dissipate some of the current tension around the proposed law.

I would go further and propose that all current schools, local boards and districts carefully read the law, carefully get clarification from the federal and state offices of any points that don’t indicate they can be charter schools, and submit applications to include and infuse choice, flexibility and innovation.

It doesn’t take a whole new law, with overlays of more bureaucratic structure, to make change happen. L.D. 1553 need not be passed. What needs to be done is for current schools to recognize they are eligible to incorporate charter schools and provide the elements outlined in L.D. 1553.

I will praise the commissioner for his sharing openly with us that “(charter schools are not a silver bullet that will solve all of our educational problems,” and indeed they are not.

Despite the growth in the number of charter schools throughout the country, the U.S. Department of Education’s 2004 final report, “Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program,” notes this and to use a weak metaphor, charter schools seem to be considerably less than silver bullets, and in my view are more like water-gun sprays.

The essence of L.D. 1553 is to address “at risk” students, but the 2004 report clearly indicates the trials and tribulations charter schools are experiencing.

The key thing is that because of several confounding data variables, no conclusive data is available from most of the schools, but from several states that can provide the data there is a clear indication that students in charter schools do not perform better than students in traditional public schools, although in some cases the outcomes are similar.

So, perhaps more time is needed to cull valuable best practices from this reform concept. It’s only been around since 1991 and perhaps needs a little more time.

A final note: Innovation doesn’t mean “follow me,” which is the sense I get when I hear that 40 other states have charter schools.

Why not be innovative and transform the current public schools into entities which can do everything the current law is proposing?

Why not have an innovative commissioner, innovative local school boards, innovative students, teachers and parents rally around the current public schools rather than create the illusion that significant change will emerge from public charter schools?

– Special to the Press Herald