New legislation in Maine will extend a 10-school cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open, a move that has been both celebrated and criticized at a time when many states are grappling with how to handle charter growth.

The law keeps in place for an indefinite amount of time the cap of 10 schools allowed to open. It was originally due to expire at the end of 2021, 10 years after the state authorized the first charter schools to open.

The legislation, along with another bill capping the number of students who can enroll at the state’s two virtual charter schools, was enacted without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills.

Lindsay Crete, the governor’s press secretary, said Mills doesn’t disagree with the aim of the bills but would have preferred to see an independent review and evaluation of Maine’s charter school system in order to understand how charter schools may affect the broader education system.

The Department of Education also asked for such a review in its testimony on the two bills.

Maine’s decision to keep the cap on charter schools comes as states around the country are also considering how to accommodate the growth of charter schools, which are public schools that are run independently and often serve a specialized mission or population of students.

In many places, debate over caps is being driven by school funding concerns and the financial impact on traditional school districts, said Matthew Gardner Kelly, an assistant professor in the education policy department at Pennsylvania State University.

“I think across the board funding issues have become so prominent it’s bleeding into much broader attention to this idea of charter school expansion caps,” Kelly said. “It’s not that charter school expansion hasn’t always been contested, but particularly in places where districts are financially distressed, charter school expansion can be seen as making that situation a lot worse.”

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, the lawmaker who sponsored Maine’s new charter cap bill, said both financial impact as well as concerns regarding the performance of Maine’s existing charter schools informed the legislation.

“There were a number of issues – academic performance, attendance, retention rates,” he said.

Maine’s nine existing charter schools include a mix of elementary, middle and high schools. Some focus on an educational theme, like the performing arts or agriculture, and some are aimed at helping students deemed at-risk for economic or academic disadvantages.

According to the most recent data from the Department of Education, 50.24 percent of students statewide were at or above expectations on English/language arts assessments and 37.05 percent were at or above expectations in math in 2017-2018.

At charter schools, students at or above expectations in language arts ranged from a high of 80.23 percent at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science to a low of 21.43 at Acadia Academy in 2017-2018.

In math, the six charter schools for which the department had publicly available data ranged from 43.35 percent of students at or above expectations at Baxter Academy to 12.82 percent at the Maine Virtual Academy.

Brennan added: “I think we’re spending close to $25 million per year for over 2,000 students to attend charter schools. This is a good time to stop and assess whether charter schools are performing and moving in the direction that was initially promised.”

The total enrollment for charter schools in Maine in 2017-2018 was 2,240 out of the state’s 180,650 students. Total state funding for charter schools was $23.67 million.

In 2015, the state changed the funding mechanism for charter schools to spread the cost out over the entire state as opposed to having per-pupil education dollars follow students out of their home districts.

Maine currently pays on average $12,197 to educate a student at a traditional public school, while the costs per pupil at charter schools range from $6,895 to $10,662.

Michael Wilhelm, chairman of the Maine Charter School Commission, said he disagrees with the cap, adding that the necessary oversights are already in place to allow for expansion.

Charter schools are required to administer state assessments for students and are evaluated annually by the commission. They’re also required to undergo four-year performance reviews in order to renew their charters.

“If there are concerns, they may be particular to one school or another, not necessarily all the schools,” Wilhelm said. “We have a range of performance by the schools. Some of the younger schools only around a year or two old are still getting their feet under them while others like Baxter Academy are doing really well.”

He also said charter schools are unique in some of the issues they deal with. For example, a virtual school might struggle with truancy because there is by nature not as much oversight in getting students to sign into their computers to attend classes.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, who sponsored a competing bill last session to remove the cap on charter schools, also acknowledged that while some charter schools have struggled with performance, so have traditional public schools.

“I think in general it’s important we acknowledge that all students have different learning needs and for some the best environment is access to a charter school,” Pouliot said. “By putting a cap on the number of charter schools we have in the state, we are limiting children’s opportunities for different educational experiences that might help them better succeed in school.”

The charter commission is currently weighing two applications for a 10th charter school that would bring the state to its limit.

While the law previously allowed for school districts to authorize charter schools in addition to the 10 schools that could be approved by the commission, that provision is also going away.

Meleena Erikson, who is a founding board member for Sheffwood Academy, one of the two schools being proposed, said although a limit on charter schools may have been prudent initially, she cited a rigorous application process and existing oversight as reasons for more schools to be allowed.

“I think the challenge with not removing the cap is that it prevents organizations, groups and individuals from coming in and proposing new, different and innovative education approaches at the pre-K through 12 level,” Erikson said.

“Any time you’re doing something that prevents innovation from happening, there are negative ramifications. Unfortunately in this case, the people hurt by it are the students because they’re not getting the opportunity to apply to these schools.”

The new legislation also requires the charter commission to develop a process for revoking a school’s charter, something Wilhelm said is already in the works.

“Every charter school commission needs to have a closure plan for schools that fail for one reason or another,” he said. “The commission has been working on that and we have looked at that very closely this last year, so if a school is under duress financially or really struggling to meet standards and expectations, we have a way to address that.”


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