Maine’s LePage Proposes to Lift Charter Cap, Unions Oppose

The legislative proposal submitted by Main Governor Paul LePage to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that are allowed to operate in the state is already encountering opposition from the state’s teachers unions. Portland Press Herald reports that in 2011 a law created the ten-school cap which is scheduled to remain in place over the next decade.

In the near future, lifting the cap is unlikely to make that much of a difference. Currently only two charter schools operate in Maine and serve about 150 students between them. However, state officials are looking at applications to open an additional seven schools, with a decision expected in the near future.

The LePage administration wants to lift the cap in this legislative session to expand access to charter schools, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education. Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said the union opposes lifting the cap in part because charter schools have little track record in the state.

Kilby-Chesley said that the association is not opposed to school choice measures such as charter schools. However, the union has previously come out against the formula used to fund charters in Maine, by which the money follows the student whether he or she chooses to enroll in a public or a charter school. She claims that this funding method strips resources from school systems that are already financially strapped from recent state funding cuts.

In Portland, for example, school officials expect to lose as much as $10,000 a year for each student who leaves the system for a charter school.

“To take taxpayer money to fund charters puts our students’ education at risk when we cannot prove if the charter school is actually educating our children,” said Kilby-Chesley.

The arguments offered both for and against more charters in Maine tend to fall along predictable lines. Those who support school choice believe that introduction of charters gives parents options when their local public school is underperforming. Because they tend to be smaller and cater to fewer students, charters are also uniquely positioned to provide for students with special needs.

Meanwhile, opponents point to high failure rates among charters and say that public education inevitably suffers when charters are introduced because they strip local districts of much-needed financial resources.

This sentiment was expressed by Kilby-Chesley when she said that the government should be looking at ways to improve the public schools in the state instead of going after unproven quick-fix solutions.