The Right View: On school choice, voters too have a choice

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As we come to the end of another school year, I’m thinking a lot about school choice, and the efforts underway in Augusta to limit parents’ options about their children’s education.

A recent option in Maine has been to utilize charter schools. But for some inconceivable reason, the Democrat-controlled Legislature has been hard at work trying to dismantle them.

(By the way, it would be refreshing if the same people who are so vocal regarding “choice” when it comes to abortion would speak up for “choice” for the children who are already here.)

Maine’s first public charter school law took effect in September 2011, after the passage of L.D. 1553 in the Republican-led 125th Legislature. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage, and the state’s first charter schools opened in the fall of 2012.

According to the law, charter schools are public institutions designed to improve pupil learning through high performance standards; to close achievement gaps; to increase high-quality educational opportunities; to provide alternative learning environments for students who are not thriving in traditional school settings; to create new professional opportunities for teachers; and to provide students, parents, and community members with expanded opportunities for involvement in the public education system.

Under Maine’s law, charter schools may also focus on specific academic themes, from vocational and technical training, to visual and performing arts, to science and mathematics, to project-based learning, experiential learning or online instruction.

Why would anyone be against that?

Perhaps it’s because public charter schools have autonomy over decision-making when it comes to finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum and instruction. Or because they are governed by a board that is independent of a school administrative unit. Or because they’re schools where parents send their children by choice.

Whatever the reason, Democrats may want to take note of the public’s feelings regarding charter schools. The 45th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, “The Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” found that Americans’ support for public charter schools is again nearly 70 percent, and two of three Americans support new public charter schools in their communities.

Support for charter schools is overwhelming in minority communities where public schools are failing children who are already in difficult circumstances. For example, Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, together with the journal Education Next, surveys “a nationally representative cross-section of some 3,000 Americans about a variety of education policy issues.” The survey found that “support for charters among African-Americans rose to 49 percent in 2009, up from 42 percent in 2008. In 2013, it leapt upward to no less than 64 percent. Among Hispanics support jumped to 47 percent in 2010, from 37 percent in 2008.”

Given these statistics, there can be no rational explanation for the systematic attempts to undermine school choice by the Democrats in Augusta. They include Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who sponsored L.D. 1056, “An Act to Require Local Voter Approval for Charter Schools,” and Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, who penned the most radical legislation yet, L.D. 1349, “An Act to Change the Process for Approval of Charter Schools.”

In testimony last year, Jana LaPointe, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, stated, “If L.D. 1349 is enacted, it would make charter schools uniquely creatures of and totally dependent on the Legislature for their existence. No other public educational entity in Maine … has such an arrangement. This is unprecedented power to one branch of government.” Fortunately, this attack on school choice was vetoed by the governor.

Stephen Bowen, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, voiced its opposition to three more Democrat-sponsored bills that aimed at restricting charter schools during the last legislative session. He even went so far as to suggest that the Legislature should sponsor a bill eliminating charter schools altogether, as that would be easier than the “death by a thousand cuts” approach Augusta was taking. Given public support for school choice, of course, that would never work. And the Democrats know it.

So they try to make it about the money.

Maine’s public charter schools receive funding based on the number of students they enroll. For each student attending a charter school, the student’s home school administrative unit transfers a per-pupil allocation to the charter school. The home school unit is able to reserve up to 1 percent of the per-pupil amount to cover administrative costs.

In January, Matthew Stone and Erin Rhoda of The Bangor Daily News asked James Rier, who was tagged to be the new commissioner, if he had a “proposed remedy for resolving the funding tension between charter schools and local school districts.” Mr. Rier replied, “We had a solution that would have treated charter schools just like public schools and would have calculated funding, provided it to them directly, and it would have worked very well. Much less burdensome.”

Tuned out the Dems weren’t interested in that discussion either. Better to keep the wedge issue alive with the false narrative about funding, which actually favors school choice. Attempts by the governor and the commissioner to address the funding issue died in the 126th Legislature. Perhaps someone can bring that up with Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who chairs – as a first-term legislator, interestingly – the Education & Cultural Affairs Committee.

All of these games go on in Augusta unnoticed. So while your legislators are back home campaigning this summer, boasting of their accomplishments over the past two years, parents who care about this issue should check the records of their representatives and senators. Before going to the polls this November, reject legislators who have consistently voted to curtail funding from charter schools, or attempted to pen laws that would restrict them. These politicians are swimming upstream against the wishes of parents, and of the public at large.

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Julie McDonald is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer, and chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Republican Committee. Her column appears every other week.