AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage plans to introduce legislation to allow an unlimited number of charter schools in Maine, and the proposal is coming under fire from the state’s teachers union.
The state law that was passed in 2011 to allow charter schools set a limit of 10 in the next 10 years. Only two charter schools are fully approved and open in Maine, with fewer than 150 students between them.
But seven applications are being evaluated by state officials, and organizers of several schools hope to open as early as this fall.
The LePage administration wants to lift the cap in this legislative session to expand access to charter schools, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said the union opposes lifting the cap in part because charter schools have little track record in the state.
She said the union does not oppose charter schools in principle, but opposes the provision that has state funding follow each student from a public school district to a charter school, effectively draining resources from the district.
In Portland, for example, school officials expect to lose as much as $10,000 a year for each student who leaves the system for a charter school.
“To take taxpayer money to fund charters puts our students’ education at risk when we cannot prove if the charter school is actually educating our children,” said Kilby-Chesley.
A charter school is considered a public school because it receives public funding, but it is formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders. Charter schools are largely exempt from the rules and regulations that govern public school districts.
Supporters say charter schools are a good fit for certain students because they can offer tailored curriculums that public schools can’t.
Opponents say many charter schools fail because of faulty business plans, can hurt public schools by siphoning off students and funding, and can fail to provide a good education.
On Monday, Kilby-Chesley noted that charter school teachers aren’t required to be certified.
“Instead of focusing on expanding a charter school program that may not work, we should focus our efforts and taxpayer dollars on making our already successful public schools even better,” said Kilby-Chesley.
She said that allowing an unlimited number of charter schools could threaten public schools in rural communities.
“If even a few students pull out of a public school to attend a charter, schools in smaller towns may be forced to close,” she said in a prepared statement.
The Legislature established the limit in 2011, when Maine became the 41st state to approve charter schools. It was included during the negotiations to win support for charter schools.
Demand now appears to be greater than some people in the administration anticipated.
Education Commissioner Steve Bowen, speaking at a public forum on education in 2011, told the audience that “if we have five charter schools across the entire state in five years, I’d be stunned.”
Two charter schools are open – the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School – and seven more are under consideration by the state’s Charter School Commission.
On Tuesday, the commission will discuss next steps on the applications from Harpswell Coastal Academy, the Heartwood Charter School for Visual and Performing Arts in Kennebunk, the Queen City Academy Charter School in Old Town and two virtual schools – Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy.
The commission will also reconsider the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, which has conditional approval.
The Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray also has conditional approval.
So far, the 10-school limit hasn’t been an issue, said Jim Banks, a Charter School Commission member who is also on the state Board of Education.
Demand could outstrip charter schools’ capacity in the future, he said, but it doesn’t right now. He said he expects the commission to discuss LePage’s proposal Tuesday.
Banks had no comment on whether the cap should be lifted, but said he understands critics’ concern.
“It’s a legitimate position to say they want to see how the charters are doing before removing the cap,” he said.
Connerty-Marin said the LePage administration doesn’t want to wait.
“We are pushing as quickly as possible on all fronts to provide more options for students,” he said, calling the 10-school cap “an entirely arbitrary number.”
If a student isn’t thriving in a public school, “then that kid doesn’t have five years or 10 years to wait to see if something is going to work out for them or not,” Connerty-Marin said. “We don’t want to wait and kids shouldn’t have to wait.”
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: