Short Relief: Charter school rivalry does education a disservice

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I attended private schools in New York and New Jersey. My wife attended public schools in Maryland. We both went on to private colleges and graduate schools. She’s smarter and more accomplished. You can draw your own conclusions about what that says about the relative virtues of a public versus a private school education.

I had several great teachers along the way. They weren’t always those who taught subjects I was interested in. They were teachers who knew their subjects and inspired in me a desire to learn and please them. My sense is that they were motivated by desires to share their excitement with others and to see others learn and grow.

I remember resenting standardized tests and arguing against them. How they were invalid and stifled individuality. In retrospect, I believe that my favorite teachers used testing to identify areas in which I needed improvement and work on them.

I don’t recall being particularly concerned about what it cost my parents in taxes and tuition to pay for my education. It is only now that I have become a taxpayer and parent myself that I pay attention to such matters.

We moved to Portland in 2000. Our children have gone to parochial day school, secular day school and to public high school. They have received an excellent education from each school that they have attended.

During that time, the Portland Public Schools budget has increased, while enrollment has declined. According to its comprehensive annual reports, Portland spent about $93 million on education in 2005. In 2012, it spent about $105 million to educate about 6,900 pre-K through grade 12 students, or about $15,000 per student. While a lot, that amount is significantly less than the price of tuition at one of the area’s private day schools.

In 2005, Portland founded the Casco Bay experiential high school. It educates about 275 students. In August of 2007, Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor resigned in the midst of the system’s financial troubles, including an opaque budget process and uncertain operating deficit. Concern about the school budget was one of several issues that motivated people to approve the city Charter Commission in November 2008.

The charter school movement began in the 1980s. Ironically, it was a liberal-Democratic-progressive initiative supported by the president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time as a way to promote innovation and improve performance in education. As of 2009, 41 states and the District of Columbia authorized charter schools.

The current concept of a charter school is an independent, publicly financed school that operates like a business. It is accountable for student achievement. It educates children, provides families with a choice of schools, and provides competition to motivate traditional public schools to improve their performance and efficiency.

You would think that people who do so much testing could be usefully tested themselves. It is remarkably difficult to judge school and teacher performance. Just this weekend, The New York Times ran a story about how new measures of teacher performance find the vast majority are above average. Studies of charter school performance yield varied conclusions. Some studies find that they do better than traditional public schools, others find they do worse, and still others find that they do about the same.

In June of 2011, the Republican-controlled Maine Legislature authorized charter schools and set up a commission to oversee their creation and operation. In July of 2012, the commission approved Baxter Academy’s application to operate in Portland. Last month, the school ran into some internal problems.

Mayor Michael Brennan asked Attorney General Janet Mills to investigate; when she declined, he asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to do so. Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and the local daily newspaper joined in the call, saying that charter schools lack the accountability of public school systems and that they want to ensure that Baxter Academy is managing its operations and spending Maine taxpayers’ dollars appropriately.

I fear that their positions are motivated by a desire to cater to their traditional constituencies, rather than by a desire to see others learn and succeed.

Sidebar Elements

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.