The Maine Charter School Commission weighs applications to open new schools in 2016 during a meeting in Augusta on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Credit: Nick McCrea

There’s room for one more charter school in Maine, but for the first time since the state started fielding applications seven years ago, the push to become that school is slackening.

When Maine’s charter school law took effect in 2011, groups lined up to be among the first charter institutions in the state. The law allows 10 schools to open in the first decade. By 2016, nine schools opened, leaving a single unclaimed spot.

It’s still unfilled two years later.

“I’m not convinced we’re going to get it at this point,” said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, an organization that works with groups seeking to open schools from conception to start-up and advocates on behalf of public charter schools that have already opened.

The debut of charter schools in Maine was the first significant victory in Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s push to overhaul the state’s public education system. Public school administrators, teachers and Democrats pushed back hard against the effort to introduce charters, arguing they’d drain money from public school districts, causing the quality of education to suffer.

Charter school proponents argued it was up to districts to adapt and be creative in finding ways to improve so families wouldn’t see the need to send their students to a charter.

The resistance has been muted in recent years. Maine has avoided some of the controversies seen in other states such as California and Connecticut, in part because it was able to observe the struggles and shortfalls of charters in other states helped shape Maine’s law and oversight process.

Earlier this month, Maine extended charter agreements with three Maine schools after reviewing their first five years of performance. In spite of the relative lack of controversy, the state is having difficulty finding someone to fill the last charter opening.

This year, for the first time, no one submitted an application to the Maine Charter School Commission, the state entity responsible for vetting applications and overseeing schools that have already opened. The year before, the only applicant, Wayfinder Schools, withdrew.

In demand

Early on, it didn’t appear the charter school slots would be open for long. The first two schools, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley and Cornville Regional Charter School debuted in 2012, about a year after Maine’s charter law took effect. Three more opened the next year.

The pace appeared to slow after that. Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, opened in 2014. Another online charter, Maine Virtual Academy, followed the next year.

In 2016, Lewiston’s Acadia Academy opened its doors, as did Snow Pond Arts Academy in Sidney, leaving the lone vacancy.

No group has made it through the application process since.

“The demand is there, and there’s a lot of creative educators who would love to start a school different from what exists, but we haven’t made it easy for them,” Brainerd said.

Maine’s charter schools keep waiting lists that range from a handful of students to a few dozen, which they say signals a strong desire for more options for students outside their existing district schools.

The nine existing charters educate about 2,000 of the state’s roughly 181,000 students, according to Maine Department of Education data.

Brainerd said there are still other groups behind the scenes interested in the last slot. His association remains in touch with a half-dozen serious groups that hope to keep planning and pursuing their schools, but most have hit stumbling blocks or struggled to pull together enough money to push forward.

Applicants wanted

Two groups filed notices early this year indicating plans to apply, but neither filed applications before the August deadline.

The first, Stanwood Montessori, wants to open a K-8 school in Hancock County. The group backing the effort, Stanwood Educational Foundation, is a familiar one. It pitched a school called Peridot Montessori twice in the past. The group applied in 2015 but was rejected by the commission. It went back to resolve issues with its application, and filed notice of intent to apply the next year, but ultimately didn’t submit an application.

The group expressed interest in applying again this year, but again held back its application.

Andrea Faurot, a consultant for the group, explained that the school’s name changed to match the name of the nonprofit behind the push. Stanwood is made up of Hancock County locals who want to see the school, she said.

Its application is being held up by the fact that it hasn’t been able to secure the contributions or grants needed to cover school start-up costs. She said the group doesn’t plan on filing a notice of intent to apply, let alone an application, again until the funding is secured. The minimum it would want want is $300,000.

“I do believe there are people around here who want something different,” Faurot said. Stanwood wants to start out with 150 pre-K-8 students, and currently has a waiting list of about 50 families, she said.

Maine’s charter schools are funded in much the same way district schools are funded — directly by the state based on the number of students enrolled and other factors. The charters are essentially treated as their own district. Formerly, school districts had to cut a check to charter schools for each student that left the district schools for a charter, but that model was convoluted and unpopular on both sides, and it was changed in law in 2015.

The applications these groups put together are typically 500-700 pages, outlining everything from the school’s mission and financial plans to details of its curriculum and staff break policies. It takes a group effort, and typically a committee of experienced organizers and educators volunteering their time to get the work done. In other instances, it takes a larger, experienced national charter organization or an existing entity with the wherewithal and finances to get it done.

“There’s a lot of requirements and it takes a group with quite a lot of capacity to go to the distance,” Brainerd said.

Dale Dunfee, a Monson resident, was distressed when Monson’s school closed and its students were sent to other schools in the district.

He was the second person to express interest in applying for a charter this year, but didn’t file an application. He wants the town to get together to push a charter effort forward, but to this point there hasn’t been any apparent momentum toward that goal.

Dunfee proposed the idea of a Monson Forest School, in which students spend a significant chunk of their time learning outdoors, and indoor classroom time is kept to a minimum. The model is most popular in Europe, but it hasn’t gained much traction in Monson.

Dunfee stresses he doesn’t have the expertise needed to lead the push on his own, but believes the school would be good for the town and its kids.

Making it easier

Brainerd said he’d like to see the state make the application process easier by splitting it into two phases. The first application would outline the concept of the school, while the second would get into finer details.

That conceptual go-ahead from the charter commission might be enough to convince potential backers or grantors to help finance the school, allowing groups to push forward with planning, purchase property or hire consultants to help the process along.

Faurot said Stanwood originally hoped to get a State Educational Agencies Grant. The program provides federal funding through established state agencies to help pay for the planning and creation of charter schools. Maine hasn’t assigned an agency to accept or administer such funds, so it’s one of seven states where SEA Grants aren’t available, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It seems unlikely that the governor would authorize the grant program now, with just one charter spot remaining, Faurot added.

Groups struggling to put the pieces together to start a charter have options other than going it alone, according to Brainerd. In some states, charter organizers have worked with local school districts to spark district-led charter operations.

Brainerd said he’d like to see a collaboration like that happen, and that it’s most likely to work in a district that’s struggling financially or faced with the prospect of closing schools.

Faurot said Stanwood has tossed around that option, but much legwork remains before it could come to fruition.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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