In recent months, several conservative governors in the U.S. – notably Chris Christie of New Jersey and Paul LePage of Maine – have come out strongly in favor of charter schools. In both cases, strong opposition has sprung up from the other side of the aisle.
Under the current system, enacted in 2011, students choosing to attend a charter school as opposed to a ‘traditional’ public school are funded by state money following them from the traditional school to their new one. This provision, seen by many as the only self-sustaining way to allow charter schools, is at the center of controversy. Administrators and parents in public schools argue that this siphons away crucial funding for an already underfunded public school system.
Skowhegan public schools, as noted in an April 1 article in the Bangor Daily News, saw 50 students and more than $450,000 leave with the arrival of two nearby charter schools. While this does amount to roughly $9,000 in loss per pupil, Maine as a whole spends roughly $15,000 per student per year, ranking as one of the states spending the most in the U.S. The losses, therefore, are actually less than what the school likely would have spent to educate those students.
According to LePage, the attacks on charter schools in Maine are unfair to the parents looking for the best educational option. And if, as the numbers seem to indicate, the charter schools can educate students for less, isn’t that a win-win across the board? Not so fast, say the Democrats – who believe bailing on the public school system is what makes it not work.
Studies have shown that charter and magnet schools work. A notable example, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, is consistently ranked among the top 20 high schools in the U.S. In cities such as Camden, New Jersey, where public schools are literally falling apart from defunding, charter schools are bringing Democrats and Republicans together as a locally-run, cheaper option to educate the city’s students.
The lesson Maine can take from Camden is that we cannot remove any option from the table. As a Democrat, I feel obligated to oppose charter schools or vouchers, as they seem to be infringing upon public schools. Yet part of me also sees the validity of a parent’s desire to seek the best education available for their child. In a time where job openings are few, a good education is the key to financial stability. Can we really begin scrapping ideas that could potentially alleviate some of the strain on our public education system?
It all comes down to one simple question: Can we handle the possibility that education as we know it has failed? It hasn’t failed everyone – the students in the one-room schoolhouse who end up going to Yale or Stanford are shining examples of what can happen in the current system. But poor education, as a result of the hugely consolidated, under-staffed larger schools, is directly linked to increased violent behavior, and in turn, a more violent community.
Education is not a simple issue. If Social Security is the one issue politicians never want to touch for fear of imminent political death, education must be the next rung on the ladder. But we see the successes charter schools are having nationwide, although they obviously are not free of corruption, as revealed by the problems at Portland’s Baxter Academy of Technology and Science.
Therefore, it appears that we must consider charter schools viable alternatives to the public school system in America. Perhaps in a decade we will find the charter school project has failed, and return to step one. But unless we try – and trying is what we owe every student – we will never know if the problems that persist in education can be solved.
I believe in public schools. As a product of a public school and a public university, I believe they are an important part of our society. That being said, they are not right for every student, and to educate without recognizing this ignores the possibility that students are unique and in need of individualized education. While I have never considered myself a fan of LePage, on this one issue it appears obvious that both sides can come together and negotiate.
Let charter schools come to Maine, as the state legislature has already said it should. We stand only to gain a more affordable educational alternative in the short run, and in the long run, the benefits are yet to be known.