Testimony opposing LD 1553 charter school bill (Sproule)

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

My name is Judy Sproule and I reside in Trenton. I am vice-chair of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, chair of its Legislative Sub-Committee, and chair of the Trenton School Committee.

I join my colleague, Brian Hubbell, in representing the board of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System which has voted to oppose LD 1553: An Act to Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine. I have some additional comments to make concerning this bill.

As a school board member, I am overwhelmed by the task of responding to LD 1553. I have researched and waded through issues of opportunity, accountability, and performance, and remain unconvinced that charter schools hold the solutions to our problems. In fact, it is not evident to me what problems they are trying to solve, certainly not those of urban populations or inner city schools. It seems to boil down to a question of flexibility to innovate, and three things are very clear to me:

  1. If the justification of charter schools is to allow them exemptions from statutes and rules, then either those statutes and rules need to be changed, or all public schools should be eligible for the exemptions. Otherwise, we are enabling discrimination.
  2. We do not need to create a parallel system of schools in order to innovate. Both Title 20A §6212 and its proposed expansion in LD 1488 were crafted in-State, to allow for innovation to fit our students and our schools while best utilizing our resources.
  3. We can not afford a parallel system of schools, administration, and a board that parallels the DoE that would draw from our declining resources: student enrollment continues its downward trend as does available funding, schools are closing, teachers and administrative personnel are retiring and not being replaced.

My greatest concern is the effect of charter schools on the students left behind. Commissioner Bowen has referred us to an article by Richard Elmore1 he considers required reading. It discusses change, standards based reform, and warns against a system that allows choice because it draws resources away from the non-choosers.

I have heard the argument that charter schools do not take money away from public education, and I want to make very clear how the system of “money follows the child” would work, using my school as an example:

Our school budget is built around our students’ needs weighed against our resources, which in my town does not include any state subsidy for regular education. The DoE collects this budget and enrollment data from schools and produces a report that calculates a per pupil subsidizable rate2 for each one. It is an adjusted cost divided by the number of students. The most recent published number for my school is $16,412, and if this amount were to leave with 10% or 11 of our students, it would create a budget hole of $180,532, an amount approximately equal to the cost of four teachers.

Having 11 fewer students does not change our requirements for one classroom teacher for each grade, but the numbers indicate we should cut half of them. Eliminating specialized learning areas: art, music, physical education, world language or extracurricular activities for the remaining 104 students would not even fill the hole because they do not all represent full-time employees. We still need our principal, guidance counselor, cook, and nurse. We still need to pay for electricity, heating oil, insurance. It remains to be seen if our town would agree to a budget increase of $180,532 to cover 11 students who do not currently cost us any incremental amount, or whether the 104 students would end up paying with reduced educational opportunities.

In another example, assume we lose 11 students because their families move to Massachusetts to seek employment. Again, having 11 fewer students does not alter our staff needs and overhead, but this time the money does not follow them and the remaining 104 students are not compromised.

I want to make sure you understand the local practical and political ramifications of the provision in LD 1553 that allows a governor-appointed board to create a committee of volunteers that can direct my community’s property tax dollars away from our school to a newly formed real or virtual school, which by design would not serve all our students. Keep in mind that the growing market of education management companies will be interested in that same DoE report, referenced above, as a tool to target geographic areas with high enrollments and high subsidy numbers, and LD 1553 will allow them to bypass our local voters and school boards. Please also consider that virtual charter schools could capture as much as $50 million of combined state and local education funding if successfully marketed to Maine’s 5000 home schooled students.

In sum, the concept of charter schools, regardless of their pros or cons in major metropolitan areas, does not transfer successfully to Maine. Not only are they unnecessary to achieve our goals of improving the quality of education for all of Maine's students, they will, in fact, impede our efforts to do so.

I urge you to reject LD 1553.

Thank you for considering my comments.


1 Elmore, Richard. “Building a New Structure for School Leadership”. The Albert Shanker Institute. Winter 2000. Download link: http://www.ashankerinst.org/education.html

2 High to Low by Total Per-Pupil Operating Costs. Maine Department of Education. Data as of January 2011 2009-2010 Per Pupil Subsidizable Operating Expenditures including Special Education and CTE (Vocational), excludes major capital outlay, debt service, transportation and federal expenditures. Download link: http://maine.gov/education/data/ppcosts/2010/highlowtotalJan2011.pdf

3 2009-2010 Home Schooled Students 4,927 http://maine.gov/education/enroll/homesch/homeschool.htm 2009-2010 State Total Per-Pupil Operating Costs 2 Elementary $9,064.77; Secondary $10,831.95; Total $9,631.72

Recommended: Ravitch, Diane, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.