Times Record: Keep cap on charter schools (Jan. 10, 2013)

In a way, charter schools seem like a dream come true.

Who isn’t for choice? Who doesn’t want the best education possible for their children?

The problem is in creating a publicly-funded system that doesn’t produce public benefits. That’s what charter schools could become if allowed to grow unimpeded — a taxpayer-funded gambit for a select few, without public oversight. And that’s why we oppose Gov. LePage’s initiative to expand the state’s limit on charter schools past the currently allowed 10.

The concept is great. Charter schools are independent public schools allowed to innovate while remaining accountable — to the state, apparently, not local school boards — for achieving goals and mandates. They are said to foster a partnership between parents, teachers and students to create an environment in which parents can be more involved, teachers can innovate and students are provided the structure they need to learn. Schools can choose to specialize in a learning area — science or math, for example — a learning style — hands-on or virtual. Or both.

After all, there should be no one-size-fits-all solution to the diverse educational challenges facing this state and its pupils.

The problem, as always, is funding.

Every public dollar taken from a public school for a charter school takes more of the wind from the sails of our teachers, who will have fewer resources to do their job. Achievement will likely suffer, leading to an outcry for more choice. Demand for more charter schools would draw still more money from the rank-and-file student.

Where does it end? When every school is a charter school? If charter schools are so much better, shouldn’t we be extending their concepts throughout our existing public school system?

Public schools in Maine have already been defunded, burdened by mandates and publicly excoriated by the governor — none of which is helpful, as it remains our common vehicle to produce a generation of Mainers capable of understanding a fast-developing world and being able to maneuver it.

Indeed, diverting funds to charter schools becomes its own self-fulfilling success story, as the educational performance of public school districts crumbles along with their evaporating budgets.

It strikes us as not real educational reform when you go about setting up an adjunct public school system that not everyone can access, especially where various reform proposals — more instructional hours; expanding pre-kindergarten to all day; establishing schools as child health-care and social services hubs — have not been examined in a serious way. (Some have, such as teacher assessments that tie pay to performance, a concept that’s coming to Maine and is reasonable to anyone in the private sector.)

We applaud the pilot program allowing 10 charter schools in Maine. It’s a good-faith effort at creating new educational choices. But given the funding environment and the lack of success many would-be charter schools encountered in producing a proper application — witness Tuesday’s rejection of 80 percent of what came before the Maine Charter School Commission — we believe caution is in order in expanding charter schools beyond what is essentially a boutique educational opportunity afforded only a segment of our society.

The jury is still out on whether the overall benefit will outweigh the public cost of charter schools. Let’s wait and see before we go rushing off to recess without a hall pass.

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