AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine became the 41st state to allow the creation of publicly funded charter schools Wednesday when Gov. Paul LePage signed into law one of the premier bills of his young administration.

LePage and other charter school advocates gathered for a signing ceremony in the State House and LePage took the opportunity to tout this and other education measures he said represent major steps toward reforming Maine’s public schools.

“Charter schools may not be the end-all, be-all for every child but it’s another element in the mix of options available to families, parents and kids throughout the state,” said LePage. “As we move forward you’re going to see us a lot more focused on education from the start of school throughout the higher-education process.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but most often privately run. They often focus on a specific topic such as fine arts or natural sciences and must meet state and federal academic standards. They do, however, have more flexibility in curriculum, budgeting and other issues. The voluntary public schools cannot teach religious practices or discriminate against students or teachers.

Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen told the Bangor Daily News that charter schools in other states have longer school years or school days, heavier community involvement and fewer restrictions on who they can hire for teachers. Whether those provisions will come to be in Maine remains to be seen.  

The charter schools bill, which will become law in 90 days, sets up a state commission of seven people — three from the state Board of Education and four Maine residents — which will have the authority to approve up to 10 charter schools in the next 10 years. The bill also allows individual school boards to create charter schools within their district which would not count toward the commission’s 10-school cap. That essentially means there is no cap on the number of public charter schools the measure allows, said Bowen.

Students who choose to attend charter schools will be funded by dollars that follow them from their traditional school system, a provision that was at the core of opposition to the bill from people who worried about already stressed school districts losing precious education dollars. To avoid major impacts on traditional schools, the charter school bill puts limits in the first three years on how many students from a given school can enroll.

Asked after the press conference about whether he sees risks associated with depriving schools of dollars or their highest-performing students, LePage said his motivation is what’s best for students.

“This is not about the opposition,” he said. “It’s not about the school. It’s not about the teacher and it’s not about the teachers unions. This is about our kids.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who sponsored the bill, said he saw greater risks associated with not establishing charter schools as opposed to opponents’ arguments. He said charter schools won’t siphon money away from public schools because they will be part of the public school system. When pressed about the provision that public school money will follow students away from their traditional school district, Mason said that was considered carefully.

“Isn’t then the question that has to be posed, why are the kids leaving?” he said. “Are they not being adequately served?”

In preliminary votes on the measure earlier this month, all but two Senate and six House Republicans favored the measure, which passed 21-13 in the Senate and 88-51 in the House. The opposition was strong among Democrats, though two senators and 19 representatives favored charter schools. The final votes in both chambers went under the gavel Tuesday, meaning there was no debate or roll-call vote.

One of the first beneficiaries of the new law could turn out to be the former Goodwill-Hinckley School in Fairfield, which is in the midst of transforming itself into the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. Glenn Cummings, former speaker of the Maine House, is the new school’s president and executive director. He said the school’s board of directors will weigh whether to submit an application to the yet-to-be-formed Maine Charter School Commission, but that the financial benefits are considerable.

“Frankly there are probably more pros than cons for us,” he said. “We’ll likely start putting our application together this fall.”

A group of people from the Somerset County town of Cornville who want to convert the former Cornville Elementary School into a charter school also were among those present at Wednesday’s signing ceremony.  

To date, the only known member of the Maine Charter School Commission is James Banks Sr., who is chairman of the State Board of Education. He said he’ll choose two other members of the board to join him on the charter commission. The trio then will choose four residents for the board, who will be vetted by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Asked what types of organizations would be favored to run charter schools in Maine, Banks said it’s too early to know.

“We have not delved into that kind of evaluation,” he said. “This is so new that I think we just need to make sure that we take sufficient time to evaluate all interested parties. This is going to be a very slow, step-by-step process. We will not be rushing in until we have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s more than once.”

LePage said the measure is bigger than just an education issue.

“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on developing the future of Maine’s economy if we can get charter schools in natural resources, marine resources and agriculture. We have to get back to what we have to work with and what we have right now is those resources.”

Among the other victories touted by LePage were $63 million in increased funding for public schools; a law that allows public schools the latitude to implement innovative methods; the adoption of a “STEM” teaching model that focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and rollbacks of penalties against school districts that don’t comply with the state’s school administrative consolidation law.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.