What We Can Learn From Charter Schools

I recently attended a candidates’ forum to showcase my district’s candidates for state senate and house of representatives.  On this year’s Maine ballot is a referendum question (question #2) that asks voters to approve a 3% surcharge on any household income over $200,000, which means that any individual who hauls in over $200,000 will have the income that is in excess of $200,000 taxed at 3% to support state funding for public schools.  

To me, it’s a no-brainer, because incomes over $200,000 puts one in the 1% category, and I absolutely feel that it is ok for tax dollars of the well-off to go toward Maine schools.  This means that all Maine schools benefit, not just the schools in Maine districts where wealthy people live en masse.  

However, there were candidates at the forum who disagreed, for fear that tax dollars earmarked for schools somehow might not actually go to schools, and I suspect also because it qualifies as a new tax and taxes scare voters away.  

One thing every candidate on the panel agreed on, however, was that “teachers should be allowed to teach.”

But what does this mean?  One candidate thought it meant getting rid of the Common Core (I had a lengthy discussion with him about this after the event ended, during which I tried to explain to him that abandoning the Common Core standards at this time would be a major setback to Maine students and teachers alike.. The conversation ended with him trying to get away from me, which didn’t leave me with the warm feeling one hopes to have after meeting a potential state representative.. I’ll be voting for his opponent, and not just because we disagree about the Common Core), and others thought it meant school choice and bringing in more charter schools.   To others, teachers being allowed to teach meant more resources, professional development, and/or more compensation.  

“Just let teachers teach” is a phrase most in the public education field know all too well, and it comes about from the experience one gets of being stifled by top-down decisions which impact what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught.  It’s a complicated issue; the reason the Common Core is seen as a culprit is it is a set of standards, and standards are typically mandated, so if you don’t teach the standards, you will get in trouble.  But let’s be clear.  For folks who don’t like standards, it’s not the Common Core standards that are the issue, it’s the idea of standards itself.  I would argue that getting rid of standards, at least in math and reading, would be a very bad idea, but that’s not what I am writing about today.  I would also argue that the Common Core standards are far better than our previous standards, and are more geared toward better understanding of concepts and content that today’s careers and the careers of the future require.  But I am not writing about that today either.

Charter schools are public schools that don’t have to follow the rules of public schools.  Naturally, this creates some really interesting and creative educational environments.  Maine has charter schools that are entirely online, and others that focus primarily on the arts, technology, and sciences.  Some have very nontraditional learning environments.  The data on charter schools is mixed, as there have been some great successes and there have also been some pretty dismal failures.  But one thing cannot be denied; charter schools are designed and run by people who think outside the box.  Sending your child to a new charter school (and all of Maine’s charter schools are relatively new) certainly involves risk. Of course, with every risk comes the possibility of positive outcomes, and when those outcomes involve children, we want them to be exceptional and wonderful outcomes.  If not following the rules yields exceptional and wonderful results, then who wouldn’t want to sign up?

People who oppose charter schools don’t like the idea that essentially a private institution claims tuition that otherwise would go toward funding traditional public schools. If our public schools are constantly in need of resources and are underfunded, how can one justify a privately run institution tapping from the same pool of resources? Charter school foes often point to the aforementioned inconclusive data to support their argument.  

Charter schools are still in the experimental stage in Maine and America, and I have come to terms with that.  The question I have to ask, now that Maine has nine functioning charter schools, is:  What can our traditional public schools learn from our charter schools?  

It is my strong belief that competition is not appropriate when it comes to public education– schools should not compete for funding, classrooms should not compete for resources, and teachers should not compete for higher scores.  Public schools, whether across district, across Maine, or across the country, should share their successes and work together to bring about greatness in education.  It’s just another reason I dislike the business model of public education.  It’s not about who can churn out more college-and-career-ready 18-year-olds at the end of twelve years of compulsory education.  It’s also not about who can churn out the best college-and-career-ready 18-year-olds.  It’s about every education stakeholder taking part in a community effort to maximize the potential for every child to experience and exhibit greatness.

How about that for your mission statement?  

We already know that, on the whole, public schools in the world’s wealthiest nation are not succeeding in that effort, so it’s understandable that we’ve got some experiments underway to try to get there.  Charter schools, as I see it, are collectively one of those experiments.  So is the Common Core.  So in Maine, we ought to be paying a lot of attention to what is happening in our nine public charters. They are serving the same populations as all the other public schools, but they are simply going about it in different ways.  Some of them, surely, will fail. Others will perform on par with public non-charters.  Some will probably shine and outperform traditional public schools.  And when they do, let’s put our heads together and collaborate to make all Maine’s schools shine.  

If we allow our charter schools to serve as laboratories for innovative teaching and learning techniques, all Maine schools could reap the benefits, and charter schools might be a little less controversial.  That would require some outside-the-box thinking and open mindedness on the part of our public school leaders, and of course, a little help from the 1% couldn’t hurt.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.