DEAR SUN SPOTS: Public schools have to provide services for special education needs such as speech, physical and occupational therapy. Schools also have a nurse and counseling services available.

Are charter schools in Maine required to provide these same services? Do they receive any state or local reimbursement beyond what public schools receive for like services? Are the public school systems required to provide these services to a charter school? Thank you. — Stan via email

ANSWER: In light of Stan’s many questions and recent news stories, Sun Spots decided that it was finally time that she learned more about charter schools, so she turned to Bob Kautz, director of Maine’s Charter Commission for some answers. He was kind enough to offer the information below.

Charter schools are public schools. The difference is that instead of being run by a school board, which then answers to the towns within a district, they answer to the Charter Commission.

Each charter school has a plan for what it will do and how it will do it. This is the school’s charter. Once a year the “performance contract” is reviewed, and the school’s progress toward the goals outlined in the charter are assessed by Charter Commission officials.

Charter schools have more flexibility in how they achieve the outlined goals, but, unlike a regular public school, if they fail, they can be closed.

Once a charter school has decided to set up shop, so to speak, and has been approved, it can begin accepting students. Parents can choose to send their child to a charter school instead of the designated local school.

Once the parents notify the school of their decision to send their children to a charter school, the school districts where the children live must send each child’s portion of designated tax dollars to the charter school. Those per-pupil fees have a base, but they can vary.

For example, the rate would be increased if a child is receiving special education services or is on the free-school-lunch program. The fees also differ by grade. Each year it’s determined how much the district must send the charter school for students who live in that district, based on a formula.

However, the charter school cannot go back to the district and ask for more money if it’s later found that the child needs additional services.

For example, say a child was accepted to the charter school and two years later it is determined that she needs specialized attention such as that provided by Sweetser. The charter school must pay Sweetser’s fees and cannot ask the originating district for more money.

Charter schools must provide many of the same services as public schools, although they do have more flexibility. They do not have to have a superintendent, and their administrators don’t have to be certified. Teachers do not have to be initially certified, although they must obtain their credentials in three years.

Nursing services are required (this does not mean a full-time nurse in the school at all times, the same as with other public schools). Guidance counselors are not required and would depend on the program.

Charter schools do not need budget approval and do not have to meet staffing ratios (number of students per teacher), but they also get no help with facility costs.

There is a “catchment area” for bus services, but beyond that parents must provide transportation to the charter school.

If a charter school’s plan is not well thought out, it could find itself in financial difficulties, and it cannot go to the taxpayers for help.

Charter school advocates say the fact that a school can cease to exist inspires the teachers and administrators to work harder and provide a better education for students.

Sun Spots has no children and no opinion on this subject (an unusual state of affairs!), but she recommends that, as with any decision, parents who are considering a charter school should thoroughly research all aspects, speaking to knowledgeable people with varying opinions.

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