AUGUSTA, Maine — More than two years after Maine’s first public charter schools opened, there are student waiting lists at all six in operation.
According to Bob Kautz, executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, 917 students are enrolled at Maine’s charter schools, all of which are still ramping up their enrollments to what could soon push Maine’s overall charter school student population to several thousand.
“There’s definitely a lot of demand out there,” Roger Brainerd, director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, said. “No question.”
Monday, which marked the beginning of national School Choice Week, was charter school day at the State House. The event attracted dozens of charter school students and educators.
Despite rosy projections for charter school growth in terms of student numbers, expansion for charter schools poses a unique challenge. Their public funding comes in the form of per-student fees, but charter schools don’t receive separate state funding for expansion or upgrades to a school’s physical plant. Kautz said that’s a problem that will necessitate active and ongoing private fundraising.
However, there’s another major funding change in the works this year that Kautz said is likely to find strong support from the commission and most education officials in Maine. Although a bill has not yet been presented, Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Education are expected to propose charter schools essentially be considered stand-alone school districts when it comes to funding.
That means that instead of charging a charter school student’s sending district for his or her tuition — meaning the financial burden is concentrated on traditional public schools located near charters — charter school funding would come directly from the state’s general purpose aid account.
“When the charter schools send out a bill and the local district has to write a check, it doesn’t create warm feelings,” Kautz said. “We would be happy to see [the new funding model] because we think it would create a more harmonious working relationship.”
Students at Monday’s event sounded a common theme: At a charter school, there’s greater flexibility for students to achieve learning benchmarks through unique methods, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. In fact, in several ways there’s nowhere to hide from teachers who are constantly monitoring individual students’ progress.
“This was a good choice for me,” said Alec Dupuis of Greene, who is a junior at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland. “At my old school, I felt like I was surrounded by people who were not motivated to learn.”
Theo Dean of South Portland, a sophomore at Baxter, said being put more in charge of her education has helped her mature and learn in a way she believes will better prepare her for success.
“I went to Baxter because it felt like a school where I could have more of an influence on my education,” Dean said.
Hilary Chase is a math teacher at Maine Connections Academy, an online virtual charter school with nearly 300 students. Having come from a traditional classroom, Chase said that because of the amount of data collected, she is able to zero in on each student’s progress far better than she ever could before.
“Their grade is based on what they know and what they can do,” she said. “None of my students are ever graded just for doing their homework.”