There has been a two-decades-long experiment in which educators in big cities and rural towns have tried to see what charter schools would do to help their students.

The results have been mixed: Some charters have had dramatic success, capturing the imagination of children who were falling behind in traditional public schools. Others have been financial or educational failures.

While different approaches were tried and tested, Maine stayed on the sidelines. Those days are over.

With the signing by Gov. LePage of new charter school legislation, Maine has an opportunity to take what has worked elsewhere and use it here to improve the lives of Maine students.

And the teachers and superintendents who have ideas about programs that might work with the students and families whom they see every day will have a chance to try them out.

That combination of knowing the history of charters in 40 other states and the local understanding of what may work here is what could help the state make the transition smooth for students and families.

The debate over charter school legislation in Maine has always gotten stuck by the argument that the creation of new schools would divert money from the public school system, which is short on resources. Some claim that the charter school movement is just an attempt to privatize education and end the commitment to public education.

What the critics ignore is that charter schools are public schools, open to the same population of students — including those with special needs — as traditional public schools and receive the same amount of per pupil support.

These schools of choice are set up under a governing body, usually a school board, and have to maintain the same standards as traditional schools if they are to keep their charters. This is a level of accountability that is absent from other public schools, and provides protection for families who choose to take a chance on a new program.

The schools do allow for more flexibility and innovation than existing public schools, but that is a benefit, not a fault. Traditional schools work well for many children with many different needs, but they don’t work well for everyone, and school districts owe parents the opportunity to find a setting in which their children can do their best.

Now that the law has been passed, it’s up to educators to use what they know about the needs of their students and their communities to take full advantage of what is now available to them.

School districts will have plenty of protection. The percentage of students allowed to leave a traditional school will be capped and the law only allows 10 schools to be chartered by a new state board over the next decade. But districts are allowed to charter as many schools as they want, either on their own or in partnership with other districts, which gives them the opportunity to be creative.

The challenge for teachers and administrators is to identify a need that is not being met, and coming up with a plan to fill it.

It could be a high school with a heavy math and science focus, or one that meets at night or on the weekends for students who work.

It could be an early education program, in which a kindergarten and first grade is teamed with a preschool program, giving at-risk children a strong start to school. Or it could be an island or small-town school that might otherwise be shut down.

All of these ideas have been tried in other states, and the record of their successes and failures is available to any Maine educator trying to design a program here.

The long fight over whether Maine should have charter schools is over. Now is the time for a constructive discussion about how this new school structure could be used to give every child an opportunity to succeed.

The experiment has finally come to Maine and educators here should get off the sidelines and make it work.Maine has an opportunity to take what has worked elsewhere and use it here to improve the lives of Maine students. And the teachers and superintendents who have ideas about programs that might work with the students and families that they see every day will have a chance to try them out.

 


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