Offering charter schools in Maine is not an indictment of public schools. The opportunity to choose a different, independent form of education for a child is just that — a choice.
Establishing charter schools, however, would be a realization of the limitations in the state’s current educational system, which can be inflexible against the rapid pace of change, whether economic, demographic or bureaucratic in nature.
Again, this is not a criticism. Every system has its shortcomings to shifting circumstances. Alleviating them comes from the offering of practical alternatives, which charter schools could be. Lawmakers are now considering legislation to establish charter schools in Maine, and we think it is an idea whose time has come.
Resisting innovation in education, as charter school proponents have pointed out, comes at Maine’s own peril. Of all the ideological housecleaning promised by the Obama administration, the swiftest sweep is likely heading towards education, which has avoided reforms to chip away at its core so far.
The change agents, instead, have been states. Forty of them — excluding Maine — have created public charter school systems, which allow their development independent of one-by-one approval by state legislators. This is the proposal for Maine that has been put forth in LD 1438.
President Obama is making funds available for new charter schools, a facet that helps quiet concerns about the diversion of state education funds away from public schools, especially in these tight times. Yet the best argument for charter schools isn’t funds, but attitude. There must be room for innovation in public education.
From our perspective, there is no downside to jolting the existing system, particularly when potential gains are found in providing a better educational experience for Maine’s children. We see charter schools as a chance to make all schools better, by creating new academic opportunities and niches.
The state Department of Education is not against charter schools, this time around. LD 1438 calls for no more than 20 schools to be created under the auspices of local or regional school boards, or colleges, during next 10 years as a pilot program. This should be enough time to gauge their effect accurately.
And enough safeguards exist — such as enrollment limits per grade — in the charter school legislation to ensure none of these new institutions harm the operations of public schools, which is a concern.
Proponents say charter schools would most benefit students finding it difficult to succeed in the existing system. We think the possible benefits are broader, as the refreshing opportunity of choice in education could carry some upsides, such as spurring greater community involvement in education, which are unquantifiable. (School pride is never greater than when there’s a rivalry.)
Education in Maine can be helped by a little shakeup, a little innovation, and the introduction of a little choice. Charter schools are a vehicle for all three of these, and deserve support from lawmakers.
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