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Tide is turning toward approving charter schools

There is still resistance, of course, from those who do not want to relinquish their power over the system.

If ever there were an idea whose time has come, it is charter schools in Maine.

In spite of spending far more money per student than most states, Maine's education results, as reflected in statewide and national testing, has shown little improvement over the past 20 years.

While charter schools are hardly a panacea, they provide ways in which new approaches to education can be delivered.

Indeed, the best charter schools have developed some of the most innovative and effective ways of developing teachers, improving instructional practices and achieving measurable results.

In spite of all the evidence that charter schools are a helpful addition to the public school system, at the hearing on Maine charter school legislation last week in Augusta we were treated to the usual wall of opposition from the four horsemen of the education establishment: the Maine Education Association and the associations representing school boards, superintendents and principals.

These groups, who routinely oppose any change to the currently ineffective status quo, trotted out the usual concerns: not enough money, not enough control, too much flexibility (heaven forbid).

"Just leave us alone, we know what is best," is this crew's lament.

Over the past several years, this lament found welcome friends among the Democrats in charge in Augusta. Times have changed. The Republicans, now in charge, are more open to charter school legislation.

Maine's proposed legislation builds on the best of the national models. The concept is straightforward: A group may form a charter school if its members are willing to commit to achieving a pre-determined set of education results for the students they enroll, and agree not to discriminate in accepting applicants.

That last provision means that the demographics of the students of a charter school should mirror that of public schools in the area. The only exception would be if the charter were targeted at a specific student population, such as at-risk students.

Usually, the charter of the school runs for renewable terms of five years. After five years, if the school has not achieved the results to which it agreed, its charter may be revoked.

The charter school is funded by the number of students who enroll. Each student brings revenue equal to the average per-pupil expenditure in the school district in which the student resides, thus impacting current district funding.

Charters have significant flexibility in the teachers they hire, the hours they operate and the academic approach they develop.

In essence, the state says to a group interested in starting a charter school: "If you will follow our guidelines for organizing and agree to a set of outcomes for your students that is consistent with the kind of improvements we aspire to as a state, we will let you organize and recruit students. If a sufficient number of students actually come to your school, we will provide per-student funding similar to state averages. If you are not successful, you will lose your charter."

This is a pretty good deal all around. A local area gets a new school. The school must demonstrate to students and parents that it is better in some way than the current alternatives or it will fail.

The result is that charters tend to be hungrier, more results-focused, more innovative and often more effective than traditional schools.

If this is indeed the case, you may well ask why don't we simply convert to the charter model across the state?

This, of course, is what really strikes fear in the hearts of the four horsemen of the education establishment -- they would be rendered largely superfluous.

However anachronistic the four horsemen may be, they have sufficient power to block this development for a long time.

What is more likely in a rural state like Maine is that a moderate number of charter schools will develop, mostly in the larger population centers where it will be easier to attract students. A few will be specialized, focusing on a particular theme or innovative education idea.

Some charter schools will thrive, others will struggle, some will fail. Along the way there will be sufficient success to provide a more effective learning environment for certain types of students and also to test approaches that can be adopted in our current public school system.

I am optimistic that Maine may finally join the ranks of the 40 other states with charters.

This will not come without a hard fight – even with Republicans in charge and in favor of the initiative.

The four horsemen will be fierce in defending their domain, even as the tide moves inexorably against them.