Five years after passing the charter school law, supporters said Tuesday that the state should get rid of the “10 schools in 10 years” cap and open the process to more schools.

“Five years and several tweaks later we find ourselves up against the cap with little opportunity to offer this alternative setting to other Maine students,” Education Commissioner Bob Hasson told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee at a public hearing on a bill to lift the limit.

Waiting lists at Maine’s nine existing charters demonstrate that there is a demand, he said, and lifting the cap may prompt operators to open charters in different parts of the state. Today, all nine schools are based in southern Maine, although they include two virtual schools and two schools that offer residential options.

But opponents argued that the charter schools are still “an experiment” in Maine, and noted that the lawmakers who passed the initial charter school bill argued over this point in particular.

“That promise was key in getting some votes from the then-Education Committee members and we believe it is key today, because charter schools are still very much an experiment in Maine,” said Elaine Tomaszewski, acting deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “It is an experiment that needs to run its full course and then be carefully reviewed before being expanded.”

About 2,000 students attend charter schools in Maine, which has about 182,000 students in all. State funding for the schools, which are continuing to add whole grades at a time as they expand in their startup years, is expected to be about $23 million in 2017-18.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, the Lisbon Republican who sponsored L.D. 1158, believes the time is right to lift the cap, even if it is five years sooner than originally planned.

“Being cautious and conservative, Maine legislators created a go-slow pilot phase to explore this new approach to public schools,” he said. “(The) charter schools are proving their merit.”

The head of the state’s teachers union and the Maine Principals’ Association opposed the bill.

“There are numerous reasons why we believe charter schools in Maine are not the best choice for Maine students,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. She noted poor results on standardized tests at some of the schools, large numbers of students enrolling and then dropping out of a virtual school, and data that suggests charter schools enroll fewer poor students.

But she acknowledged that there are counter-arguments to her claims, and asked instead that traditional public schools be treated more like public charters.

“The question I raise is, why not release our community schools from many of the mandates under which we must work? Allow us to use our professional knowledge to build strong schools rather than be told to do things we know aren’t in the best interest of our students, and return education to educators,” she said. “Give strength to our local districts rather than the present move to marginalize them by increasing the number of charter schools.”

Getting charter schools in Maine was one of Gov. Paul LePage’s first major education reform efforts, and it was highly controversial.

Former President Barack Obama and President Trump both support charter schools, and current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a major charter school advocate. DeVos and her husband have been the primary donors behind the creation, expansion and deregulation of charter schools in Michigan, which a Detroit Free Press investigation last year found were riddled with abuses, including a charter school administrator receiving a $520,000 taxpayer-financed severance package and an online charter school spending $263,000 on a Dale Carnegie confidence-building class.

The Trump administration is expected to add incentives to encourage the growth of taxpayer-financed, privately operated charter schools across the nation.

Some of the more controversial aspects of charter schools have been addressed in Maine’s law.

The Maine Charter School Commission, which approves and oversees the charters, requires regular audits, visits and reports from the schools. Also, the state changed the funding mechanism, from billing the local schools to spreading the cost out over the entire state – lessening the local financial impact of a nearby charter.

There is one way to add charter schools without counting toward the 10-school cap: A local school board can authorize a charter school within the boundaries of its school administrative unit. While some districts have explored this option, including Lewiston, no school district has opened a charter school.

The education committee will vote on whether to recommend passage of the bill in an upcoming work session.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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