2013-04-11 / Editorial

Beyond the Headlines

Charter schools: Local control on choice
Rep. Justin Chenette

When it comes to educating our youth, local control is critical. While there are standards everyone must meet, the people that know how to best educate are the ones in the classroom and parents at the local level in our community. The same philosophy should carry over with the advent of charter schools.

My bill, LD 1056, is an act to require local voter approval for charter schools. This bill simply adds an additional final step in the process for approving a charter school in a particular school district. It requires that any approval of an application to establish a public charter school by the Maine Charter School Commission does not take effect unless submitted to and approved by the voters in an area-wide referendum that includes the entire community proposed to be served by the public charter school, including all municipalities in which the public charter school would be authorized to engage in student recruitment.

There are a few tweaks needed and are being worked out through the education committee. For example, a population trigger might be needed to specify that after so many students from a particular municipality attend the public charter school, a vote is needed to ensure that public money should follow those students and be allocated for attendance to that particular charter school.

The Maine Association for Charter Schools has come out and said this bill would make it almost impossible for charter schools to open. Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes referendum as “an electoral device by which voters express their wishes regarding government policy or proposed legislation.” How is allowing the public, in the district that the charter school will impact, to weigh in on the matter, making it impossible for charter schools to open? Are we worried that the public might not like the idea of a charter school siphoning money away from an already strapped public education system? Or are we just worried that by allowing citizens to vote, we can’t sneak in a charter school approval without accountability of the individuals who will end up paying for it?

Let me be clear, this isn’t about whether you approve or disapprove of charter schools. It has everything to do with local control. If Saco residents voted to approve a charter school after having been through an approval process by the Charter School Commission, I would welcome that charter school with open arms. At that point I would know without a doubt that it is the will of the people – the taxpayers who are footing the bill for that education – who want this education venture to establish a presence in the community. The problem is, currently, it is not the case. A gang of seven people can ultimately force a charter school in a community they have little to no knowledge about.

Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Spruce Head, Wayne, Alfred, Lincolnville and North Yarmouth – those are the communities where the Charter School Commission members reside. Pretty sure Saco wasn’t mentioned in that list, and yet these people can dictate to Saco taxpayers that their hard-earned money will be going to a school other than their alma mater, Thornton Academy.

How do I know as a Saco resident that I’m being adequately represented on the commission prior to the decision being made? One argument would be that the public has adequate participation already. Surely the public hearing is enough.

Here are two recent examples that give a good window into how little time is granted for public input into the process. For Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science, residents had four and half business days to submit testimony and for Harpswell Coastal Academy, the public had three and a half business days to submit their opinions. This was in addition to a simple two-hour public hearing in each community. A few hours for a meeting during the day when most parents are working and a few days after to either mail in or email responses isn’t sufficient when we are talking about changing the educational paradigm for our kids.

Adding a final step of a public referendum,will enable a lively and educational debate surrounding the charter school approval and the type of education a particular community wants and needs. Much like referendums for casinos, school budgets and political candidates, citizens have months of disseminating information to make an informed choice at the ballot box. If the charter school is in fact going to significantly improve educational outcomes for a select group of students within a district, then let the Maine Association for Charter Schools and the particular charter school applicant authorizer make the case directly to parents and voters throughout an electoral season. I don’t see how that is a bad thing. I see that as helping ensure everyone is on the same page and we know what we are paying for. It ensures local control while allowing charter schools to be put on a higher platform by raising the level of discussion and discourse.

Justin Chenette is the state representative for district 134 in Saco. You can get legislative updates about the work out of the 126th Legislature at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/justinforsaco, and Twitter.com/justinchenette.

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