Maine Schools in Focus: Maine’s Charter Schools—A Five-Year Update
Editor: Gordon Donaldson
In 2011, Maine became the 41st state to enact a law permitting public charter schools. The first such schools opened in 2012-13, an elementary school in Cornville and a high school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, on the campus of Goodwill-Hinckley in Hinckley. Now nine charter schools are serving Maine students, two of them as online “virtual” schools.
Five years into Maine’s experience, what have we learned about the state’s unique brand of public charter school?
One thing seems clear: Maine families and students have responded to the opportunities presented by the state’s charters. Total enrollment has climbed from 106 in 2012-13 to 1,954 this year. Average enrollment in our public charters has grown steadily as new schools have opened and as existing schools have added grade levels, and it now stands at 217. Excluding the two larger virtual schools, the average size of the other seven is 170. Most schools, as well, report waiting lists of students seeking to enroll.
What appears to motivate students and families to choose charters? Maine’s charters must enroll students on a first-come-first-served basis; that is, there are no admissions criteria or selective procedures, as the schools are truly “public.” Charter school leaders report that parents and students are often looking for an alternative approach to their neighborhood schools, one that promises to be more responsive to individual differences, be more attentive to learning and adjustment difficulties kids are experiencing, and might offer a “fresh start.” The small size, personalized culture, and experiential-learning practices of most of Maine’s charters seem to draw students more than the curricular themes schools advertise (for example, marine and natural resources at Harpswell Coastal Academy in Harpswell, technology and science at Baxter Academy in Portland, the performing arts at Snow Pond Arts Academy in Sidney, or the arts and sciences focus at Fiddlehead School in Gray).
Families of students with special needs appear particularly eager to try charters. This year, over 20 percent of charter students have Individual Education Plans. Excluding the two virtual schools, most of the remaining schools report upwards of 30 percent of their students have special needs—nearly twice the state average.
Three things have, among others, distinguished Maine’s charter schools’ experience from our non-charter public schools. First, public funding for charters is clearly limited to state sources: it comes almost entirely as a per-student annual allotment from Maine Department of Education based on the EPS per-pupil rates of the student’s resident district (SAU). Schools must then operate within those fiscal limits while complying with public school requirements and addressing the unique challenges of being start-ups. Most struggle to offer competitive salaries and have needed to augment their public funds through fundraising and grants in order to provide basic services. Beyond that, resources needed for specialized services, for recruitment and fundraising, and for administration are motivating charters to discuss collaborative cost- and service-sharing arrangements.
Second, Maine’s charters operate on a contract basis—the charter—with explicit accountability requirements. They submit elaborate applications to the charter commission covering all aspects of operation, including targeting outcomes for students. In granting a charter, the commission endorses the expectation that the new school will deliver on its promises. The commission requires a detailed annual report on progress and a subcommittee visits the school each year to examine its operation and listen to staff, students, and parents. Each school then receives a yearly public performance report identifying strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the five-year charter term, schools must reapply for and be granted a new charter or go out of business.
Finally, Maine’s charters fall under a dual governance structure. The Maine Charter School Commission and each school’s board of directors exercise a greater degree of engagement and oversight over the affairs of the schools than most non-charter schools experience from MDOE and, perhaps, their own boards. The commission and charter boards share authority over significant changes at the schools. Commission staff, commission members, and board members are more familiar with the personnel and operations of charter schools than is typical elsewhere. This unusual arrangement requires a degree of open communication and collaboration between the governing boards and adds complexity to the leadership of charter schools. As with any innovation, the capacity to maintain a constructive arena for problem-solving in this environment has proven essential to the growth and survival of Maine’s charter alternatives.
The start-up period for Maine’s public charters appears to have met many of the expectations of the law to some degree: the nine schools have provided alternative learning environments for students, increased opportunities to learn, diversified professional options and practices for educators, and expanded opportunities for parents and communities to be involved in the public education system. Certainly, they’ve demonstrated that there is a hunger for alternative ways of schooling and learning.
Challenges remain, however. Will our public charters prove as successful—or more successful—with their students than our non-charter public schools? Will charters be able to maintain their uniqueness and their responsiveness, particularly in light of their limited resources? Will successful innovations (for example, in instruction, assessment, and culture) be shared with other schools? Will charters come to be seen less as competition to the schools in their locales (both public and private) and more as complements to them?
Charter schools remain a controversial innovation throughout the country. As a whole, they appear to have proven neither more effective nor less effective than non-charter public schools (Zimmer et al, 2009). Maine’s approach was intentionally designed to maximize success within the schooling context of our state, including our history of respecting family and student choice. We can expect more advocacy for charters in the future; it seems doubly important, then, to follow the experiences and performance of Maine’s nine schools and the lessons they carry for us all.
Note: Three members of the Maine Schools in Focus review board are involved directly with Maine’s charter schools.
Sources: Data provided by the Maine Charter School Commission (maine.gov/csc); Maine Public Charter Schools Authorized by the Maine Charter School Commission (2016) Augusta ME: Maine Charter School Commission; Maine Education and Revised Statutes: Title 20-A Chapter 112 Public Charter Schools; Zimmer, R. et al. (2009). Charter schools in eight states: Effects on achievement, attainment, integration, and competition. Santa Monica CA: RAND Education.
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Contact: Gordon Donaldson at firstname.lastname@example.org.