DOE rules threaten plan for Portland-area charter school

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AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Education is proposing restrictions on when students will be able to sign up to attend one of several charter schools now being developed under a new state law.

A science and math charter school called Baxter Academy has been proposed for the greater Portland area.

As part of the new law, a DOE committee was charged with coming up with rules for the 10 non-district charter schools that will be allowed under the law. School districts can also start charter schools within their district that do not count toward the 10-school statewide limit.

As written, the DOE’s rules would require students interested in attending a charter school to submit a written declaration of interest to the school between Jan. 1 and the third Tuesday in January. Then, the student must commit to enrolling by Feb. 15.

“A three-week window is unworkable,” Baxter Academy Director John Jaques said. “It needs to be changed.”

Last week, Jaques testified before a legislative committee tasked with reviewing and approving the proposed rules.

He said the three-week window for enrollment would severely limit the number of students the school would be able to enroll, threatening its ability to attract interest from area families.

“Most states (that allow charter schools) do not have an enrollment window at all. Public schools don’t have an enrollment window,” he said.

But the DOE is requiring the strict window in an effort to help public schools prepare their budgets. Charter schools will be funded by state money that will follow students from the public school they formerly attended to the charter school where they are enrolled.

Even if the charter schools were able to get enough students to enroll during that window, the Legislature has not yet appointed the Charter School Commission and won’t be able to until it reconvenes in January. All charter schools have to be approved by the commission.

Baxter Academy had hoped to open in the fall of 2012, but if these rules are approved, that seems unlikely.

The Maine School Management Association, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for the interests of school districts, also testified at the Nov. 22 hearing, calling the rules “written to promote charter schools rather than regulate them.”

The proposed rules are before a legislative committee that will ultimately send them to the full Legislature for approval. The DOE will accept written comments on the rules until Dec. 2 at 5 p.m.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.