The charter school solution: The best — or worst — idea ever?


Roger Brainerd was a public school teacher when he came to a simple, inescapable conclusion: Maine needs charter schools.

It was 1993 and he was trying to innovate his coastal-area school district. He and his colleagues talked of multi-age, Montessori or Waldorf classrooms. Re-energizing teachers. Change from the bottom up.

“We were really looking around, (saying) ‘How can we do things best for kids?'” he said. “It was an exciting, heady time.” 

And change was under way — right up until the school system lost its superintendent. Then its replacement superintendent. Brainerd and his fellow teachers saw three leaders in three years, and while some of their innovations got through, other grand plans gradually melted away.

“When political winds shifted, when superintendents come and go, when budget times get tight, it’s very difficult to sustain initiatives and innovations. They’re often the first to die away,” he said. “And things go on the way they were.”

His answer: Create from scratch schools that are publicly funded but free of entrenched bureaucracies, conventions and some rules. Across the country they’re known as charter schools. 

Nearly 20 years after Brainerd began fighting to bring them here, Maine remains one of only 10 states that prohibits charter schools.

That could soon change.

Legislation to allow charters in Maine was recently approved by the Legislature’s Education Committee and is expected to be sent along to the full Senate soon. Gov. Paul LePage backs charter schools, and the bill is likely to find strong support in the Republican-led Legislature.

Proponents like Brainerd say charter schools will bring flexibility and innovation to Maine education, offering students and parents the choice of a private school-like education without having to pay tuition.

An arts-based elementary school? Yes.

An online-only virtual high school? Yes.

A school for kids with learning disabilities or with exceptional talents in math or who are at risk of dropping out? Yes.

“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expecting different outcomes,” Brainerd said.

But opponents say charters — which are still publicly funded public schools — will drain students and money from already cash-strapped traditional public schools. When they succeed, opponents say, they can cause the demise of all the community schools around them. And when they fail, they can fail spectacularly, taking a school full of children down with them.

Opponents also say charters offer an education that’s no better than regular schools, but with risks that are far greater. They see charters simply as a bad idea whose time should never come in Maine.

“For rural areas it’s going to be an absolute killer,” said State Rep. Steve Lovejoy, D-Portland, one of four Education Committee members to vote against the bill.

A panacea for public education or its death knell: The reality, experts say, likely lies somewhere in between.

Early advocates backed away

Ray Budde, a University of Massachusetts education professor, began talking about “education by charter” in the 1970s, and in the 1980s he proposed them as a way to support and encourage innovative teachers by giving those teachers more responsibility and autonomy. But his idea was to do that within existing public school districts, not separate from them.

The idea was taken up by Al Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country. He liked the thought of giving teachers greater control and leadership opportunities. He publicized — and popularized — the charter idea. However, out in the public it soon morphed from a way to support individual teachers to a way to create whole new schools.

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to allow charter schools. California allowed them a year later, and other states quickly followed. Today, 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow charter schools. There are now more than 5,400 charter schools serving more than 1.7 million students, according to the Center for Education Reform. 

Both Budde and Shanker eventually renounced the charter school movement they helped start, saying the charters that had developed — independent, sometimes union-less schools that competed with traditional public schools — were not what they had in mind.

Ten states — Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia — don’t have charter schools.

Historically, charters have been hailed by both Democratic and Republican leaders, with each side latching onto a different potential advantage that charter schools offer. Some like the fact that charters aim to give all kids equal access to a top-notch education since they are no longer limited to the school in their hometown. Some like that charters are possibly more efficient than traditional public schools since they educate students with less taxpayer money, sometimes by establishing schools without unions and often by using federal or private grants to fill in any gaps. Some like charter schools’ innovation and the freedom they have to create and shut down programs virtually at will. Others believe that charters force existing traditional public schools to improve by creating a free-market atmosphere with school choice.

But actual studies on the benefits of charter schools — particular around student achievement — show mixed results.

“The evidence in support of them is not nearly as strong as the marketing in support of them,” said Peter Weitzel, a project coordinator at the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield and co-editor of the 2010 book “The Charter School Experiment.”

While some studies show great gains in student learning and graduation rates at charters, others don’t. Because so many of the studies are backed by either proponents or opponents of charters, it can be hard to find independent reviews. And when an independent study is released, those who don’t like its findings quickly pounce on it, ripping apart its methodology, guidelines or calculations.

“There’s a lot of spin out there … from everyone,” said Donna Karno, assistant professor for early childhood education at the University of Maine at Farmington.

The study most often cited by independent experts was done in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. That national analysis looked at charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, covering 70 percent of students in charter schools. It found that 46 percent of charters were no better at educating kids than their traditional public school counterparts. Thirty-seven percent were worse. And 17 percent were better.

In other words, like traditional public schools, there were some good charters, some bad charters and many in between.

Soon after the study was released, Caroline M. Hoxby, a Stanford economics professor and charter school supporter, criticized its calculations and conclusions. She released her own study on New York City charter schools that year and published findings that were completely contrary to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Her conclusion: Most long-term charter school students fared better than their counterparts.

In other words, charters are wonderful.

Mixed results nationally

Experiences with charter schools have been just as mixed as the research.

States make up their own rules for charter schools, which means charters can vary greatly across the country. Some states allow for-profit companies to run charters. Others don’t. Some limit the number of charter schools that can exist. Others let as many open as the market can bear. Some have strict regulations that require regular oversight of finances, student achievement and retention rates. Others are more lenient. 

In the beginning, states were very lenient.

“It was just the Wild West out there. There wasn’t as much care taken regarding who could open one up, who was the authorizer, who was overseeing them. That created a mess,” said Karno at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Over the years there have been accusations of school leaders taking outrageously large salaries, spending money on real estate rather than teachers, and embezzling the cash that was supposed to go to programs. There have been stories of charters inflating their test scores to make themselves look better and pushing out low-performing or special education students. There have been instances of charters suddenly shutting down, stranding students without a school and teachers without a paycheck.

At the same time, there have been stories of charter schools turning surly dropouts into disciplined, college-ready graduates, creating innovative programs that inspire bored students and building close-knit, high-achieving schools with little money but a lot of dedicated teachers. 

In Kingston, N.H., the Seacoast Charter School is one of the success stories. It opened in 2004, one of the first in New Hampshire after that state began allowing charters in 2003. What started out as a small, arts-based elementary school spurred by local parents has turned into a 172-student K-8 school that draws kids from 30 towns. It’s expected to grow to more than 270 students in the next two years, but it could get even larger if it wanted. Seacoast Charter has a 300-student waiting list.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the mission of the school and the focus on the arts and the integration of the arts into the academics,” said Head of School Bill Wilmot. “I think some people are looking for a different kind of school environment where parents are more involved and have the opportunity to be more involved. Some people are looking for a smaller school environment.” 

But even in New Hampshire, where charters are strictly regulated and overseen, not every charter is a success. Of the 15 schools originally authorized as part of a 10-year pilot, five have gone out of business because of a lack of enrollment and a lack of money. One was the New Heights Charter Academy, a Goffstown school for 11th- and 12th-graders who wanted to study business and technology. Another was the New Hampshire Equestrian Academy Charter School, a Rochester high school that prepared students for careers in the horse industry.

In Maine interest grows

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee has voted 9-4 for a bill that would create charter schools here. It’s the latest in a long line of charter school bills submitted since 1993. Some of those didn’t make it out of committee. In 2009, a charter bill made it to the full Legislature for a vote but was narrowly defeated.

If this year’s bill passes, traditional public schools will be able to apply to become charter schools, as can private schools. Charters can also be created from scratch.

The advantages for those schools: guaranteed tuition money not paid by parents, the ability to draw students from other towns, the ability to start a program fresh, freedom from some of the bureaucracies that can hamper traditional public schools and the ability to keep open small public schools that otherwise might close.

The disadvantages: startup is hard, funding is typically less than it costs to educate a child unless supplemented by federal or private grants, attracting students can be a challenge, the school can be shut down if it doesn’t prove it’s doing its job. 

Nearly two decades after he began fighting to bring charter schools to Maine, Brainerd is now executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools and is principal of the Blue Hill Harbor School, a four-year-old private high school with 16 students and an individualized curriculum. If the bill becomes law, he’d like his school to be one of the first charters.

“We’re ready to go and take that challenge of every student who wants to come in the door,” Brainerd said.

Good Will-Hinckley is ready, too. A couple of years ago it shut down its Fairfield school for young adults who have academic, social, behavioral or emotional problems. It plans to reopen in the fall as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a private high school with a focus on forestry, agriculture and environmental science. The governor’s budget would give the school some money to run a small residential program, but Good Will-Hinckley doesn’t want to stop there. It wants the academy to be a full, tuition-paid charter school.

“It’s a perfect marriage because we would have the overnight funds, so we could literally go across the state and be a statewide charter school,” Executive Director Glenn Cummings said. 

John Jaques, an Augusta-area public school teacher, also wants to be one of the first to start a charter school in Maine. Even before the bill was endorsed by the Education Committee, he’d created a 12-member advisory board and an informational website for Baxter Academy, a proposed Portland-area science and technology high school. He believes the school can have 300 students by 2015 if it’s allowed to open. He said he’s getting positive comments from parents and teachers who have heard about it.

“They’re excited to have this option,” he said. “I think you’d be surprised to find out how many parents have considered the (residential) math and science school in Limestone but decided against it because of the distance. You basically have to ship your kids away, and a lot of people don’t want to make that decision as a family. They want to keep the family together.”

He believes his school — and charters in general — will give Maine students an option they never had before.

“If you’re from a wealthy family in the Portland area, you have a lot of choice,” he said. “If you’re not from a wealthy family in the Portland area, your choices are quite limited.”

A drain on existing public schools?

Unlike traditional public school systems, which have been running for generations under firmly entrenched rules, expectations and expenses, charters can open virtually any model they want. Charters often have longer days or school years. Sometimes they have no teachers’ union. Usually they offer a special curriculum or serve a particular group of kids. 

Because they’re unconventional, charters are likely to be a draw for families. That’s one of the chief concerns of charter school opponents, who worry kids will leave traditional public schools in large numbers, taking their state and local funding with them.

Charter school backers say they’ve put safeguards in the bill to limit the percentage of students a traditional public school system can lose to a charter in the first few years. They also point out that school systems won’t have to spend so much money if they’re educating fewer students. And, they say, at least some charter school students will be those not currently enrolled in a traditional public school — because they dropped out, for example. Those kids bring no money into public schools now because they aren’t using those schools.

“The money is already leaving because of the number of students who are not finding their needs met,” Brainerd said.

But opponents say the bill’s safeguards are too limited. They say charters could easily take 10 percent of a school system’s students, enough to cause a dent in funding but not so many that the system could slash teachers, close schools or otherwise save on large expenses. They believe the loss of even 50 students could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t know anybody who thinks the schools have got that money (to spare),” said Lovejoy, one of the Education Committee members who voted against the bill.

Lovejoy said the bill was opposed by associations representing principals, superintendents, school boards, teachers and municipalities. Lewiston’s superintendent, Bill Webster, said he would be OK with charters if they had to follow the same rules and regulations as a traditional school system, including accepting special education students (they would) and having voters approve their budgets (they wouldn’t). Auburn’s superintendent, Tom Morrill, doesn’t like charters at all. Like Lovejoy, he worries about losing students and losing money to these new schools.

“Those are precious dollars that could signal the end of some of the small schools that exist around here,” he said.

The Maine Department of Education, however, has spoken in favor of the bill. Like the governor, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen likes the idea of charter schools. 

“The goal really is that you have educators somewhere that see a need that’s not being met and who feel if they could create a school on paper from scratch and were given a lot of latitude in terms of their thinking, could really develop some innovative programs,” Bowen said. “That’s not to say public schools couldn’t do that well, but public schools are tough to change. They have a community they represent and a board and leadership and folks that work there and students they serve. It’s very tough just to change a bell schedule at a school much less how that school runs itself.”

If the Legislature passes the bill, the Maine Department of Education would spend the next several months drafting rules and procedures for charters. Some of those rules may need to be approved by the Legislature or require changes in state statutes, which would happen next winter. No matter what, the first charters in Maine aren’t likely to open until the fall of 2012.

“This is a big piece of policy,” Bowen said. “We’re going to take our time. We want to do it right.”

Experts say taking that time could mean the difference between good charters and bad ones.

“The devil is in the details,” said Weitzel, co-editor of “The Charter School Experiment.”

He and others say charters are built on the foundation of state law and authorization. The stronger those are, the more likely a good outcome for both charters and traditional schools alike. And when they do well, students do well. 

The bill’s crafters believe they’ve set that foundation, strictly regulating authorization and oversight of charters, limiting the percentage of students a traditional public school can lose to a local charter and requiring charters to take all kids. Opponents of the bill aren’t sure all that will be enough.

Experts say time will tell.

“It’s kind of a blank slate on which people can inject their hopes and dreams,” Weitzel said.

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If approved by the Legislature this year, Maine’s charter school law would be similar to New Hampshire’s. Key components include:

* Allowing charter schools if those schools fulfill a need unmet by the local school system, have financial and governance plans, can show how they will evaluate students and can detail hiring practices. 

* Allowing charter schools to be authorized only by a public school system, a group of public school systems or a new state board to be created. That authorizer must then oversee the charter school, including regular performance reviews and renewal consideration.

* Allowing only 10 charters to be created in 10 years by the state board. School systems can create as many as they want.

* Requiring charter school teachers be fingerprinted and undergo background checks, and requiring full-time teachers to be certified or able to become certified within three years unless they hold an advanced degree, professional certification or have unique expertise in the area they teach.

* Funding charter schools through state and local money. All but 1 percent of the per-pupil funds will follow the child to the charter school.

* Requiring charter schools to accept all students, including special education students, and hold a lottery if enrollment is more than the school’s capacity.

* Limiting the percentage of students a charter school can draw from the local school system.