Hope's Jones continues the fight for school choice in Maine

By George Chappell | Jan 31, 2013
Photo by: George Chappell Judith Jones and Roger Brainerd of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, based in Union, stop for a chat at The Courier-Gazette conference room in downtown Rockland.

Union — Hope resident Judith Jones of the Maine Association for Charter Schools has been an advocate for school choice for more than 25 years. She sees public charter schools as an alternative for choice within a public school district.

"Charter schools are spreading across the country because parents are demanding more choices. It's beginning to have a snowball effect," she said.

"A number of groups are interested in looking at the charter schools as a model for funding," said Roger Brainerd of the association.

Maine's charter school legislation was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage June 29, 2011, at a ceremony in the State House Hall of Flags. The signing followed approval in the Maine House and the Senate.

The law created "innovative new public schools," Jones said.

A charter school is a public school that operates independently of district schools and policies. It is managed by a board of directors under a charter granted by the Maine Charter School Commission. Charter schools are public schools open to everyone, free of charge. There is no tuition. Charter schools cannot, and do not select their students. If there are more students than available seats, public lotteries are held to determine who will attend.

Charters are funded by allocating a portion of education spending from districts based on how much money districts spent on each student. Since districts no longer educate these students, they no longer receive the funding for that child. The money for that child’s education is paid by the sending school administrative unit to the public charter school.

Among the unique features of the school are an extended school day, creative scheduling, project based, community based learning, integrated instruction in rural arts, and multiple outdoor activity periods daily.

On the back of Jones' business card it lists key points of the new public charter schools:

  • autonomy for accountability;
  • free to all students — no tuition;
  • Open to all students — non-selective, no admission test;
  • no religious affiliation allowed;
  • voluntary — new options for students, parents, and teachers;
  • accountable for students' learning.

The new law requires that local districts pay tuition for students who live in their jurisdiction to attend a charter school of their choice.

The state's first charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, was approved the same day as the law was signed, June 29, followed by the Cornville Regional Charter School and the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science in Portland on July 17.

Maine Academy of Natural Sciences opened September 2011 as Maine’s first high school to focus on the natural sciences. The school includes day students from the local region and boarding students from across the state and is a program of the Good Will-Hinckley School.

The academy shares the 1,800-acre campus of Good Will-Hinckley and serves 50 students from all across Maine who are at-risk of dropping out and who are motivated by individualized, project-based learning in agriculture, forestry, and the environment.

Another school, Cornville Regional Charter School, an eventual kindergarten to eighth-grade charter school, opened in 2011. The school currently serves kindergarten to sixth-graders with an enrollment of 42. Next year's plans call for an expansion to include seventh grade with a projected enrollment of 80 and in two years to serve up to eighth grade with an enrollment of 120.


Jones said that naysayers who argue against charter schools say that traditional schools "can do it all."

"But they can't," she said.

"Children whose needs are not being met in a traditional school don't move," she said.

"The charter school is there to meet unmet needs," Jones said. "It is not a dumping ground."

One of the complaints of traditional educators is that charter schools siphon funds allocated for the students for public education from existing public schools.

Jones argues that the money from the state follows the student and represents no loss of funds to a district.

"Districts only lose state aid for those students who transfer to a public charter school, just as districts now lose funds when families move to another town, a student is home schooled or privately schooled, or a student drops out of school," she said in a position paper.

Another objection is that charter schools are new, to which Jones said, public charter schools enroll 1.4 million children in 40 states. Maine's new law in 2011 made it the 41st state to allow public charter schools.

Superintendent Brent Colbry of Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, the district that encompasses Cornville and the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield, disagrees. He said the district pays for the charter school.

"I write the check," he said. "We spent $455,098 this year for the 42 kids at Cornville and the eight students at Good Will-Hinckley."

"We lost the state share and the local share," he said.

Colbry said there is a perception in the community that state dollars follow the students, but that is a fallacy, he said, because the sending district experiences no decrease in expenses.

"We have the same buildings and the same number of teachers to pay," he said.

"There is no separate allocation for money given to the charter school," he said. "We've lost 42 kids to the charter school in Cornville."

The Cornville Charter School was envisioned two years ago when the district closed the local elementary school owing to low enrollment and began busing pupils to elementary schools in other district towns. As a result, there was no elementary school in Cornville, Colbry said.

"We deeded the school building back to the town for $1," he said. That's the building the Cornville Charter School is using, he added.

He said charter school proponents reverse the funding formula to their advantage by requesting what would be coming to a town from the state as the local share.

The average allocation per student is $9,000. Colbry is concerned what will happen to costs if the growing movement for virtual charter schools, which are online schools using the charter school law to support their model, succeeds. Earlier this month, the Charter School Commission rejected two applications for two full-time virtual charter schools.

He and Scott Vaitones, business manager for RSU 13 in Rockland, have similar concerns for the virtual schools, which eventually will come, the two men believe.

"We will be the ones paying," said Vaitones.

Colbry said virtual schools usually have no buildings to support, but will continue to expect the same allocation from the state per student.

Jones said the virtual schools have expenses of their own, such as improved computer equipment and teachers' payrolls. The interactive television college course program from the University of Maine at Augusta is proof of the success of distance learning throughout the state.

She gave an example of an individual high school course in Latin now being offered at Forest Hills School, the high school in Jackman, as an example of the practicality of virtual courses offered  in far-off areas.

Now Colbry has to contend with new projected state aid cuts of $12.6 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Under the new charter law, the two charter schools in his district won’t lose state funding.

Jones believes there is a bigger principle at stake, the education of the child.

Citing a chart from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in Iowa City, Iowa, Jones said that in Maine, for every 100 ninth-grade students, 24 students do not graduate four years later. Of those same ninth-graders, 59 students do not enter college, and 69 students are not in college a second year. In Maine, 78 of the 100 original students do not graduate from college.

High dropout and truancy rates are a problem in high school education, she said.

"Once a kid drops out of a school system, 20 percent who do not make it back end up in the criminal system," she said.

Charter schools help with dropout rates because of the small classes and interest in school. "Students who like what they are doing do not drop out," she said.

Brainerd also said the option of school choice encourages a youth to stay in school.

"Usually, the ones who change schools are the ones who can afford it," he said.

By having charter school education free, the student has that choice available," he said.

"Instead of dropping out, they want to stay in school," Brainerd said.

Vaitones of RSU 13 pointed to the efficacy of dropout prevention committees in traditional high schools.

Jones and Brainerd held a "Charter School Day" in the State House Hall of Flags Jan. 28.

Jones said the event was well-attended and featured discussions on the pros and cons of charter school education.

Brainerd said charter schools need recognition from traditional educators for the movement to go forward.

"The district system is a monopoly," he said. "If you want to change things, you have to open it to new forms. The charter school model has been a way to do that in the last 20 years," he said.

Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or at gchappell@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Helen H Silk | Feb 02, 2013 14:37

If charter schools are so great (debatable), then let's examine what they do right and replicate it in the public school system.  I see both charter schools and vouchers as a supposed cure all that we are embracing without knowing anywhere near all the facts.

Posted by: johanna mary stinson | Feb 01, 2013 07:19

please post statistics of success in charter schools with respect to graduation and college completion

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