National News
December 17, 2010

Charter schools suddenly 'relevant'

By MATTHEW STONE, Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - Supporters of charter schools in Maine think they have reason to celebrate.

The governor-elect is pledging to appoint an education commissioner who's a proponent of charter schools and public school choice.

And, with a new Republican majority, the Legislature appears more likely than it has in the past to pass a bill allowing charter schools in Maine -- one of 10 states that don't allow the independently run public schools.

"Charter schools are all of a sudden relevant, because we might get them," said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

The association is drafting a bill to set ground rules for opening, operating and overseeing a charter school system in Maine. It has made repeated attempts over the past decade to pass charter school legislation, most recently in March.

On Thursday, the group shared the legislation it's working on with lawmakers, educators, policy makers and others who will play roles in the charter school debate.

The draft legislation calls for a system of schools run by organizations that apply for the charters to operate them. It would offer those schools more flexibility than traditional public schools. For example, charter school staffs wouldn't have to be unionized.

But the schools would have to meet specifically negotiated targets for students' performance or risk being shut down by their authorizers -- local school boards, public or private colleges with education programs, or a special statewide charter school commission.

During the law's first five years, the colleges and charter school commission would be limited to issuing 20 charters.

"You're not just going to be able to put your name on a storefront somewhere and start operation," said Judith Jones, board chairwoman for the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

The association has yet to confirm a sponsor for the bill, but there's "bipartisan support" for it, Jones said.

The prospect of passing a charter school bill in this legislative session looks bright, said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, a charter school supporter who has served on the Legislature's Education Committee.

But the same groups that opposed charter schools the last time have yet to be persuaded to support the schools.

Charter schools would drain funding from school districts, which are struggling to make ends meet, said Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association.

Charter schools haven't even proven successful, Galgay said.

"We'll support anything we think is good for public education in this state," he said. "They have never made the case why we need these charter schools."

Todd Ziebarth, vice president of policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said charter schools have succeeded in some states and struggled elsewhere.

"The state law matters a great deal," he said. "It has a big impact on charter schools' success and their struggles."

The law being drafted by the Maine association is based largely on the National Alliance's model law, which contains elements from charter school laws across the country.

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