By John D’Anieri, HCA Head of School

Just about anyone who has heard me talk about Harpswell Coastal Academy has heard me say, “I’m not an advocate of charter schools, nor am I an enemy of charter schools. I’m an advocate of public schools that work for as many of Maine’s young people and communities as possible.”  

Up until today, I’ve urged HCA supporters to avoid the politics and focus on doing the best we possibly can within the constraints of the process to create a school that everyone in the MidCoast could be proud to call a public school – open to anyone; working in partnership, rather than in competition with, other area public schools.

Stripped of politics and money, a public charter law is simply a set of structures that enables new public schools to start. The law basically provides for three things: 1. a way for schools to be authorized, 2. an oversight mechanism and 3. a funding mechanism.  Maine’s version of such a law has been lauded as a common sense, equitable “national model” of how to be fair to existing public schools while also enabling communities to innovate in ways that are very difficult for traditional schools to do.

But before public charters have been able to get much a foothold, the equitable funding mechanism is under rather predictable attack. Three funding bills are among five bills being addressed at a public hearing next Monday, April 1 at 1:00 pm in Room 202 of the Cross Office Building in Augusta. We need HCA’s parents, potential students, and community leaders to come out and explain why they see starting new public schools – HCA in particular – as vital.

Regrettably, this debate is going to be framed, and is likely to play out as “choice” vs “status quo.” Rabid free marketers and lobbyists for private, out of state, “virtual” schools will line up against the MEA and other public school lobbyists and will try to convince legislators – most of whom, quite understandably, do not understand how school funding actually works – to alter the law in a way that most benefits their clients.

That’s what they are paid (and make no mistake, they are being paid) to do. They practice “messaging,” “optics,” “talking points,” and “cultivating.” Each side wins some, each side loses some. Those of us doing the work – not just in public charter schools, but in all public schools, try, – to paraphrase Muhammad Ali  – to float like a butterfly and avoid being stung like a bee.

But what if, instead of a boxing match, a public policy debate was to break out? The founders of Harpswell Coastal Academy have always believed the conversation need not be “public schools” vs. “charter schools.” Let’s agree – and 95 percent of the public school teachers, parents and students I’ve worked with in Maine do agree – that our existing public schools are doing the very best they can in very challenging circumstances. Those same folks agree that – often due to forces that often may be beyond the control and/or purview of a traditional public school – that they cannot meet the needs of all students.

Once agreed, the question becomes: what public policy choices are likely to produce better results for more young people? After 15 years of debate and after studying how public charters worked in other states, Maine’s legislators made one such choice two years ago. LD 1533 passed 88 to 51, with both Democrats and Republicans voting for and against it, a VERY limited law that made Maine the 41st state to allow public charter schools.

For a public charter school to exist it needs to be authorized. Maine’s law provides two paths to attain this authorization; either through a school district or via the State Charter Commission. As a long-time public education advocate and school reformer, my strong preference has been to partner with a school district such as MSAD 75 or Brunswick and have them act as our authorizer. Not surprisingly very few folks in Maine know this option exists. I led a contingent from Harpswell Coastal Academy that formally approached Mr. Smith (MSAD 75), and Mr. Perzanoski (Brunswick) early on, and both politely and respectfully declined.

But as someone who was part of the start-up of both Casco Bay High School in Portland and Poland Regional High School in Poland – I know that we CAN start new public schools successfully. In each case they required students and public money that previously had gone to school A, B, or C and was subsequently reallocated to Casco Bay and Poland Regional. While I fully understand the fears that such initiatives trigger in superintendents who are trying to make a VERY challenging budget situation work for their students, I ultimately think it is better for local districts to be the authorizer of – and therefore a stakeholder in- all of the public schools that serve their students.

Only when the door for this partnership closed did HCA’s founders choose the second option  - being authorized by the State Charter Commission. Thus began the arduous and ultimately successful process that led to our approval.

Passed as a very limited, bipartisan initiative two years ago, the law presented a good faith opportunity for folks in Maine to create innovative, new public schools. The parents, community leaders, educators, and donors who’ve worked for most of the past two years on Harpswell Coastal Academy thought the politics were mostly behind us and we could begin the challenging, but largely predictable process of enrolling 60 students, hiring teachers, leasing space, etc.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, for several reasons. While every “bricks and mortar” charter school in Maine must be run by an independent 501(c)3 Board of Directors, the LePage administration has been focused on using the charter law to enable for-profit out-of-state operators to operate “virtual charters.” Many Mainers and many school reform experts are understandably alarmed. We can see the “virtual.” We just can’t see the “public” or the “school.”

But when people hear the word “charter,” they hear it bound up with Governor LePage’s vision for education – one that enables vouchers for private and Christian schools, and that invites Jeb Bush and other nationally known partisans in to run “School Reform Summits.” The focus shifts from policy to politics.

The Maine Charter Commission, following the both the letter and the spirit of the authorizing law, has rejected the out of state virtual applications. But the fact that these “innovations” are being lumped in with public charter schools understandably triggers the fears of public school advocates that charters will be seen as a key element in a strategy to privatize education.

And then there is the ongoing fiasco of the Baxter Academy in Portland: originally rejected, then conditionally approved by a Charter Commission that was negotiating this territory for the first time. For the past month or so, we’ve followed the media meltdown of a plan that folks with more experience in school start-up could see was doomed from the start. Whether the Baxter Board is able to regroup in a way that satisfies the Commission and the investigation proposed by Portland Mayor Mike Brennan remains to be seen. But this has not only kept “charter schools” in the news in a way that cannot help but cause doubt about Baxter, about the Commission, about the concept in general.

But even if the folks who are supposed to be advocating and implementing charters were not shooting themselves in the foot with such regularity, the biggest threat to public charter schools would still be there. The last election returned Democratic majorities to the House and Senate. As someone who tends to vote Democratic or Independent, I was personally encouraged by that result.

But I’m discouraged that one of the results has been the introduction of bills designed to ensure that charter schools have no realistic chance to succeed. We all understand the degree to which the lobbying arms of the MEA and the Maine School Management Association have to fight every day on behalf of Maine’s public schools.

But the bipartisan support for the bill’s passage had created hope that – as in the vast majority of states where public charters are as much a Democratic innovation as a Republican one, that the law would be given a chance to work before being eviscerated. Again, wishful thinking.

The underlying and highly debatable assumption employed by those opposed to public charter schools seems to be that Maine’s school children should now and forever only go to schools that look pretty much like the ones they go to now. Given the empirical data that supports the growing rate at which parents and teachers are leaving the traditional school system and the anecdotal evidence of students and business community leaders averring that such schools are not meeting their needs; such an approach – though well intended – is short sighted.

The standard argument that fuels the latter position is that, “charter schools siphon money away from public schools.” That’s misleading at best. Maine’s five charter schools ARE public schools. All are governed by the same authority; the legislature, State Board of Education, and the Dept. of Education – as any other school in Maine.

A more accurate statement would be: The charter law provides a way to re-allocate a portion (and ONLY a portion) of the public money used to educate a community’s children from one public institution to another public institution. By leaving out this important fiscal fact it becomes an easy way to stoke fear, and has motivated several legislators to introduce bills that will explicitly gut the public charters ability to succeed.

LD 533 is “An Act To Eliminate the Requirement That Local Funding Follow a Pupil to a Charter School.” The name says it all.

In the current law, HCA would only receive a portion of the combined state and local funding that normally goes to the resident district. The exact number (the “EPS per-student allocation”) varies by district and by student, but for HCA, we’ve estimated $7500-$8200. For the current school year, the four districts from which HCA is likely to draw its students have a “per pupil operating cost” of nearly $11,000 to over $12,000.” And if you count other revenue in a district’s budget that does not figure into that “per pupil operating cost” those numbers rise from a low of nearly $13,000 to a high of over $14,000.

LD 533, which on the surface might make great emotional sense – ‘”send the state money, but not the local money” would reduce the per-student amount that would go to HCA to between $3,000 and $4000. Not only that, put it would penalize poorer districts more than wealthier ones, because poorer districts get a greater share of their funding from the state. The net effect would not only be the exact opposite of the greater equity the EPS formula was created for – and it would make public charter schools fiscally impossible.

LD 889 proposes, “the school administrative unit in which the student resides must forward 50% of the per-pupil allocation to the public charter school.” This act would produce a slightly higher and more predictable – and equally inequitable and fiscally absurd – funding scheme.

Another bill, LD 1057, is titled “An Act Related to Public Funding of Charter Schools” is not available online, but I think it’s safe to assume it is not going to suggest funding public charter schools at the same level as traditional public schools – something that the current charter law does not do either.

Tomorrow’s post will outline a more detailed explanation of Maine’s EPS funding formula, how that translates to funding public charter schools, and some specific estimates of the effect the current law and the proposed changes would have on HCA’s budget and those of the districts of residence.

Whether you are a legislator, a parent, a student, or just an interested citizen, our hope, once again, is that a promising public policy has a chance to take root. It will be more likely to do so if the folks who make policy – the usually fiercely independent legislators of Maine – can be informed from a place that’s not rooting for one side or another in a political battle.