AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Charter School Commission will begin hearings Friday on the state’s first three applications for charter schools and respond to a terse request from Gov. Paul LePage to speed up its process regarding two other applications that the commission previously decided to delay.
To date, nine organizations have indicated that they seek to form charter schools, five already having submitted full applications, which in some cases number in the hundreds of pages. The commission voted earlier this year to consider three of the applications immediately and postpone consideration of two, which are applying to be “virtual” charter schools.
Charter schools are alternative education organizations that receive a portion of funding that previously flowed to public schools. Charter schools typically focus in a certain area and have greater latitude than public schools do in terms of staffing and curriculum.
In a letter sent to the commission on June 11, LePage said in no uncertain terms that he expects the commission to act on all five applications — and any more that come in before a June 29 deadline — as quickly as possible.
“If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state’s expectations, I urge their resignation,” said LePage in a press release issued Monday. “Charter schools are not a new concept. Nor is approval of charter schools a novel process. Maine is the 41st state in the nation to allow charter schools. The fact is, the commission has had nearly a year to implement a review plan. There is no excuse to cause delay on this important work.”
But members of the commission said that although the Legislature and LePage enacted legislation allowing charter schools last year, they have had nowhere near a year to develop its own rules and pore through applications. Commission Vice President William Shuttleworth, who is also superintendent of Camden-area schools, said the commission’s membership was approved by the Legislature in late December and had its first meeting in January. The process of developing rules and issuing a request for proposals took until May 1. Applications began arriving May 25.
“We’ve been busting our tails since that date,” said Shuttleworth. “I, for one, am not going to be compelled to rush the process by forfeiting the quality of the work that we do. I think that we have a compelling obligation to the state of Maine to do this right.”
Commission Chairman James A. Banks Sr. of Portland said Thursday that for the charter schools to open on the same schedule as traditional schools in September, they would need approval from the commission by early July in order to meet a statutory requirement that they have their licenses in place for 60 days before opening. Because of the length and complexity of the applications and the tight timeline the commission has been working under, Banks said he is unsure the commission will be able to rule on the applications by then.
“We’ve worked as expeditiously as possible to try to respond to these people who have worked so hard to put in these applications,” said Banks. “We’re trying to get responses to them so they can plan for opening in the fall.”
Asked whether the commission can finish its work on the three applications by early July, Banks said, “I don’t know. Absolutely that’s our goal.”
The Maine School Management Association, which testified in opposition to the charter school legislation last year, entered the debate recently with bulletins, the most recent of which was dated June 6 carrying the headline, “Commission feeling rushed to approve charters.” The bulletin summarized recent commission meetings and quoted members, including Banks and Shuttleworth, saying they felt the process is rushed. That drew criticism from LePage.
“It is appalling to know that those who are supposed to be known as ‘education leaders’ are trying to undermine the charter approval process,” said LePage in a press release. “These are so-called leaders that are satisfied with the status quo, are not interested in giving students more choices, and their recent action is simply irresponsible and unacceptable.”
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen also urged the commission to move quickly.
“The commission understood from Day One that making it possible for charter schools to open this fall was a high priority and that has been the plan all along,” said Bowen in a press release. “Commission members have been putting in long hours on this, but has remained focused despite the hard work, and my department will stand behind them and continue to assist in any way we can to move along the process.”
The commission has a public hearing on the first application, from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, which sits on the site of the former Goodwill-Hinckley School, beginning at 9 a.m. Friday. Banks said the commission also has scheduled a special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday to respond to LePage’s letter and decide whether it can act on the two virtual charter school applications in time for them to open this fall. The commission’s public hearings are scheduled to resume Monday with a focus on applications from the Cornville Regional Charter School and the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science.
Banks said final decisions on those three applications won’t happen before June 25, when the commission’s members are scheduled to take part in an all-day training hosted by an education consultant group called SchoolWorks.
“We’re just kind of taking a deep breath and making sure that we review these applications again once we’ve concluded the training,” he said. “That may allow us to reach a conclusion and to make some decisions by early July.”
Banks and Shuttleworth said there are a wide range of criteria being considered by the commission, chief of which are a viable and sustainable financial plan and a curriculum that meets the requirements of Maine’s Learning Results and Common Core standards.
Aside from the three applications being reviewed in the next few days, the commission has received full applications for virtual charter schools from the Maine Connections Academy and the Maine Virtual Academy. Letters of intent to file applications also have been received from the Fiddlehead-Art and Science School, the John Jenkins Leadership Academy, Monson Academy and the Rural Aspirations Project.