Testimony opposing LD 1553 (Hubbell)

LD 1553: An Act to Create A Public Charter School Program in Maine
Testimony in opposition
Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs
May 12, 2011

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, Distinguished Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs,

My name is Brian Hubbell and I’m the chair of the school board of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System which comprises the elementary schools of eight municipalities and the MDI Regional High School. I am before you today as their representative. At its meeting on May 9, our board voted to oppose LD 1553: An Act to Create A Public Charter School Program in Maine.

Synopsis and concerns:

Bill seeks to provide a mechanism for new private non-profit and for-profit entities to gain access to public funding in order to provide more narrowly directed educational programs to undefined subsets of students.

The law would obligate local property taxpayers to fund these independent charter school operations at the same per-pupil rate by which they fund their local public school. This obligation apparently would extend to “virtual” charter operations located elsewhere, if local students chose to attend.

Such charter operations may be authorized (and the terms of their contracts set for a period of 5-15 years) independent of local approval or oversight through a new, non-elected “State Charter School Commission.” This Commission would be appointed by the State Board of Education, themselves appointees of the Governor. Qualifications, duties, and accountability for members of this Commission are unspecified.

Charter “authorizers” such as this new state Commission may retain up to 3% of locally-provided public funds for administrative oversight. Non-profit charter operators may subcontract the actual school operations to private “educational service providers.”

These charter operations are allowed autonomy over “decisions concerning finance, personnel, scheduling, curriculum and instruction.” Charters are governed by an independent board with no direct accountability to either local voters or the local taxpayers who are nonetheless obligated to finance them.

Charter operations would be “exempt from all statutes and rules applicable to a public school, a local school board or a local school district” and “exempt from the restrictions normally associated with any state-funded categorical education funding program.”

Charter schools would not be required to provide comprehensive K-12 education and may instead be authorized to provide programming to limited age- or grade-levels, after which their students could be returned to public schools which would then be responsible for the students under conventional measures.

Facilities used for charter school operations are exempted from local property tax.

Charters are relieved of obligations to prevailing wages and apparently are granted reduced restriction to requirements for teaching qualifications.

Charter programs are nominally required to be available to all students, yet the law specifically provides for charter operators to focus only on special programs - presumably at the expense of broader educational offerings.

Authorized to concentrate programming around a “special emphasis, theme or concept,” charter schooling providers would be allowed to direct attention to specific subgroups of students, apparently relieving them of educational obligations to other subgroups.

Charter operators may avail themselves of federal financing not available to public schools.

Charters may favor admission to siblings of their current students and children of the charter’s founders, governing board members and full-time employees - presumably to the exclusion of others.

Local public schools would remain ultimately liable for all the obligations to provide a free and appropriate education in any areas not served by a charter’s operations, including extra-curricular and special education.

In summary, the bill exposes local taxpayers to a liability of potentially large private expenditures without corresponding public oversight. Following a long period during which we’ve been told that Maine can’t adequately support the overhead on its present schools, it seems misguided to divert strained public resources to broader categories of quasi-public or private school operators with substantially removed public oversight.