Public charter schools will strengthen Maine

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The state’s educational system must continue to evolve to meet the needs of all students.

I ran for the state Senate last year to help get Maine back on track and on the road to prosperity. New and better-paying jobs need to be created, relief given to taxpayers, resources provided to those who need them, and a stronger future created for all residents.

That cannot be accomplished without strengthening the state’s educational system and preparing students for the future.

Improving the quality of public education is a top priority of mine, because it will benefit everyone — directly and indirectly.

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Maine has a strong public education system with dedicated, inspiring teachers, innovative principals, and hardworking, smart superintendents. They have struggled against ever-changing mandates, reduced funding and a constantly shifting political landscape.

In the face of those challenges, they have managed to do incredible work with many students. The current system works well for most students, in most places. Unfortunately, even with the success Maine has had, there are still too many students who are not thriving in the current environment.

To help strengthen and enhance the public education system, I have introduced LD 1553, “An Act to Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine.”

Public charter schools represent an incremental reform that will help improve public education in Maine, add more parental choice, attract new federal support, and improve student performance.

In a time of scarce resources, public charter schools will bring new ideas and money into Maine.

Public charter schools are independent public schools that are allowed the flexibility to innovate. For example, charter schools can extend the length of the school day; hold weekend and summer instructional hours; or focus on specific subject areas, such as science and math, the arts, or technology. Along with that flexibility, public charter schools also must agree to a rigorous application process and ongoing evaluation. They must demonstrate that students are improving.

Like other public schools, public charter schools cannot discriminate against students or in the hiring of faculty or staff. They cannot charge tuition, and they must meet federal and state academic standards.

Public charter schools are funded in a way similar to other public schools. Each school district apportions the amount of money that they will spend on students in their districts. Once that amount is set, if a parent chooses to enroll their child in a public charter school, the funding will follow the student. That means that no new resources — tax dollars or tuition payments — are required. In fact, new dollars will come to Maine in the form of federal grants.

My bill also protects the collective bargaining rights of teachers, while empowering public charter schools to hire experts. For example, a charter school could hire a teacher with a Ph.D. in mathematics or an accomplished scientist who is highly qualified but who might not, at the time of hiring, have a teaching certificate.

LD 1553 builds upon more than 15 years of research and the best practices for charter school authorization that have developed elsewhere. Forty states and the District of Columbia allow public charter schools, and we’ve learned from their experiences.

For small school districts struggling to keep their schools open, this charter school legislation could throw them a lifeline for at least five years. When a school’s enrollment has declined to the point that one family’s decision to move could mean their school will close, public charter schools can provide a new option, and give a community the flexibility necessary to save money and save their community school.

The goal of public education is to work for the students — and their families. Right now, too many of our students are not receiving the education and the support they deserve. Public charter schools will give them another option.

The state’s educational system must continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of the students. The introduction of public charter schools will help them do that, by injecting some new ideas into our educational repertoire. They will encourage innovation, flexibility and parental involvement. Good public charter schools have shown that they can deliver results.

Students deserve every opportunity for a quality education that will prepare them for the future and turn them into life-long learners. Charter schools can improve public education, and make sure it’s working for every child.

The infusion of new ideas and financial resources that public charter schools will bring to the educational system will benefit everyone, and make Maine an even better place to live, work and raise a family.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, serves as Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and is a member of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

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