Unchartered territory

By John Frary | Jan 06, 2010

Legislation to allow charter schools in Maine was first proposed in 1997. Nothing happened. In July 2003 the Charter School Study Committee of the Maine State Board of Education was established to study the matter. It concluded that there was room for "a limited pilot project to experiment with charter schools." Nothing happened.

There are now 40 states with charter schools. I guess our Masters in Augusta considered this number still pretty limited. They are waiting for nine other pilot-states to show the way.

Then we can change the Maine motto from Dirigo, "I lead" to Sequor, "I follow after."

When the issue was raised in 2005, Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron indicated that she supported charter schools, but her department needed another year to "fine-tune" the legislation.

As the year 2009 drew to an end the fine-tuning continued without result. Last month Gendron informed the Legislature's Education Committee that there will be no legislation to permit charter schools in Maine this year.

The charter school question has been complicated by the U.S. Department of Education program called "Race to the Top," which is offering $4.3 billion in grants to states that adopt standards and assessments for measuring student growth and success; recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals; and turning around our lowest-achieving schools. Authorization of charter schools is included among the criteria for receiving grants.

So now we have a "Race for the Grants" among states and the competition will be fierce in this time of shrinking budgets. Grants are good. Everyone loves grants. If the American Association for the Promotion of Anthropophagia offered a five-million-dollar grant to erect a statue in honor of Jeffrey Dahmer, I'd expect dozens of towns right here in Maine to put in a bid.

However, the Baldacci administration's love of grants is not ardent enough to include charter schools. It figures it can put in a bid for $25-$75 million in federal cash without resorting to such a desperate measure.

Eliot Cutler, former Democrat but now an Independent candidate for governor, suggests that "the cozy relationship between the Maine Education Association (the teachers' union) and the Democratic Party in Maine" explains why.

There is a good deal of evidence to support Cutler's explanation. When the representative of the MEA testified in Augusta on the subject he said, "Not now, not ever," and he said it twice.

In Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has expanded the number of charter schools, free of union requirements, to 60, embracing 38 percent of all public school students. The results are summed up in a Washington Post headline: "Poor Students Learn. Teachers Unions are Not Pleased."

In Newark, N.J., the new mayor has gotten a lot of attention for his reforming zeal (he appears to be honest, a major innovation in Newark). He has raised $28,000,000 in private funding for charter schools, and U.S. News and World Report tells us the "unions fought him every step of the way."

Rosa Scarcelli, a Democrat but a newcomer to Maine politics with no history of a cozy relationship, supports charter schools, as do all the Republican candidates for governor. Peter Mills proposed a bill to allow them, but it was squelched by the Democratic majority on the Governor's Council. Lynn Williams, the Green candidate, favors them in the clearest possible terms, citing some personal experience with her own child.

Libby Mitchell, a well-connected Democrat whose relationship with the unions is downright cuddly, trots out all the standard objections. Steve Rowe, another well-connected Democrat, treads tippy-toe around the issue. He does not "categorically" oppose charter schools. He doesn't want money diverted from status-quo schools. He worries about missing out on the federal grants. He may also worry about missing out on MEA support, but I'm just guessing.

And so the race to be last continues.

Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and a retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com.

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