DOE testimony supports charter schools

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing May 12 on legislation that would establish a public charter school program in Maine.

Maine is one of 10 states that don’t allow charter schools.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen delivered the following testimony supporting L.D. 1553, An Act To Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine.

Testimony of Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of Education

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Stephen Bowen, I am the Commissioner of Education, and I am here representing the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, testifying in favor of the revised L.D. 1553 An Act To Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine.  There will be plenty of charter school experts here today to discuss the details of the bill before you, so I’d like to take this opportunity to talk with you about charter schools as a public policy issue, and I’ll leave the details of the bill to the others that will follow.

There will likely be a great deal of discussion this afternoon about what charter schools are, but I’d like to begin today by talking about what charter schools are not.

To begin, charter schools are not private schools.  Charter schools are public schools that are simply governed and managed in a way that is different than conventional public schools.

Charter schools are not religious schools. The bill before you spells out clearly that “a public charter school may not engage in any religious practices in its educational program, admissions or employment policies or operations.”

Despite what you are likely to hear today, charter schools are not exclusionary or elitist.  Charter schools must accept all applicants for whom they have space.  While they may specialize or have a specific focus, they may not discriminate against certain types of students, may not charge tuition, may not use entrance exams or otherwise bar entry to students, and must use a lottery system to fill slots if they have too many applicants.  The bill before you also requires that charter schools produce a plan to meet the transportation needs of students, in order to assure that all students are able to have access to charter schools.

Indeed, charter schools today serve a more diverse population than conventional public schools.  Nationally, more than 60 percent of students served by charter schools are non-white, compared to just over 40 percent of the student in conventional public schools.  Forty-three percent of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to only 40 percent in the nation’s traditional public schools.  Charter schools also serve about the same percentage of special education students as conventional public schools, and a quarter of all charter schools are not in cities or suburbs, but in the more rural areas of the nation.

Charter schools are also not a new idea.  Today, 1.7 million students attend 5,400 charter schools in 40 states, and enrollments continue to grow.  Critics of the charter school model might like you to think that public support for privately-managed schools is a new and unproven idea, but here in Maine, the Town Academies, governed by private boards of trustees, have been educating students at public expense for generations.  As with charter schools, the academies are not governed or managed by local school boards, yet they continue to attract students and families year after year and generation after generation.

In fact, one thing charter schools are is overwhelmingly popular with parents and families. Today, there are 420,000 students on charter school waiting lists nationwide.  Last school year, 27,000 students attended charter schools in nearby Massachusetts, and another 26,700 were on waiting lists.  20,000 students are on charter school waiting lists in North Carolina, 35,000 are on waiting lists in Florida, and 56,000 are on waiting lists in Texas.  In total, two-thirds of the charter schools in the nation have students waiting to get in.

Why?  Because charter schools offer students and families what we all want in so many other aspects of our lives, which is options.  Think for a moment about what we ask our public schools to do.  We draw lines on a map, and then we tell educators that they, and they alone, must meet the learning needs of every single child who lives within the lines on the map.  Our schools often do an excellent job of meeting those needs, but families across the nation are lining up to get into charter schools because they want a different kind of educational approach, one that is simply not found in many of the nation’s schools.

It is that student and family choice which brings accountability to public charter schools.  Remember, no child can be required to attend a charter school – they are public schools of choice.  If charter schools do not succeed in meeting the educational needs of students, the schools close.  That is a degree of accountability that far exceeds the accountability measures we have in place for conventional public schools.

Do charter schools drain funding from conventional public schools, as is likely to be suggested today?  Under the law before you, money would indeed follow the student from their local school district to the charter school, but only if the student and his or her family make the choice to leave – if they decide that the charter school better meets their educational needs.  In this example, then, the money is being spent to buy students the education that best meets their needs, which is precisely what we should want as a matter of public policy.  The education dollars we spend are used to provide the student with the education that best meets his or her needs.

It is important to point out that there is one other thing that charter schools are not, and that is some kind of silver bullet that will solve all our education problems.  Charter schools are a promising reform, they will give educators a model of schooling to work with that may indeed allow them to be more innovative, and they may improve student outcomes for the students that attend them.  However, though we may learn from the reforms implemented by charter schools – and we have learned much over the past few years from reforms, like extended learning time, that were pioneered by charter schools – we still must take steps to make every school better, and that effort will take far more than simply enacting charter school legislation.

Charter schools can be a part of that effort.  However, hundreds of thousands of children are being educated in charter schools across this country – all of them there because parents and families decided that such schools were the best options for their children.  Thousands of students on waiting lists are waiting to have that option as well.

It is an option we should offer Maine’s students and families.  For these reasons, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education support the passage of L.D. 1553 An Act To Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine.

Before I finish, I’d like to quickly address the issue of carrying over the bill, which I know has been talked about.  Simply put, the Department and the State Board would like to see the bill passed during this session, because waiting another year puts us another year behind in implementing this reform.  I would urge the Committee to remember that if the bill passes this Session and is signed by the Governor, it would not take effect until the fall.  Before any charter school was authorized, rules and policies around charter schools would need to be developed and adopted, the State Charter School Commission proposed in the bill would need to be formed, and charter school authorizers would need to be trained and their procedures established.  In short, there is virtually no chance that a charter school would be operational by this fall, even if the bill was passed today.  Waiting another year on the bill simply means waiting two more years for charter schools to open.

I thank you for your time and attention, and I am happy to answer any questions the Committee may have and will be available for work session on this bill.