Maine is currently one of the last holdouts opposing the creation of charter schools. What has it gotten us?

We spend more than the national average on public schools, despite having a declining student population and one of the shortest school years in the nation. While our schools are better than many states’, our students’ performance relative to our New England neighbors is declining. About 20 percent of our incoming freshmen leave school without a diploma.

When it came time to apply for federal school reform money from the Race to the Top program, we were turned away, in part because of our stubborn stand against charter schools.

All our problems can’t be blamed on a lack of charters, but we are in no position to disdain reforms that have been used successfully in states that are outperforming us. The new political alignment in Augusta may be enough to finally get action on bipartisan charter school legislation.

First we should say what charter schools really are: Public schools of choice, independently administered under a contract, or charter, with a school district, college, nonprofit or local government. Public money flows to the schools on a per-pupil basis at the same rate it goes to other public schools, but charters can also seek private donations.

Now we should say what charter schools are not: Private schools that drain resources from traditional public schools. That, however, has been the rallying cry of the supporters of the status quo, and teachers unions and many superintendents have used their influence in Augusta to kill all previous attempts to experiment with this popular form of school structure.

The arguments against charter schools are as impassioned as they are self-contradictory. Critics say that charter schools will draw students and resources away from traditional schools, while providing a lesser quality education.

What they can’t explain is why parents would choose to send their kids to schools that are worse than traditional ones. And if they really did abandon the traditional schools in numbers high enough to sap resources, what does that say about the quality of the school they left behind?

In most states, charter schools are given the option of hiring some teachers from outside the profession. The critics charge this makes those teachers less able to do the job, and in some cases they might be right.

But there are certified teachers in Maine today who are not up to the job, and they are not held accountable. If a family doesn’t like the quality of the education offered in a charter school, it can leave. That’s not an option for most Maine families today.

Finally, opponents argue that charter schools are no panacea. If you discount some remarkable success stories, students in charters are, according to some studies, no better off than their peers in other schools.

What they ignore is that families want to have choices, and competition for students could motivate all schools to improve. Charter schools may not be the solution to all of our problems, but they are part of the solution and Maine should stop resisting them.