Charter schools in Maine are like the sharks sizing up their prey

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Rick Colpitts, superintendent of the Oxford Hills Comprehensive School District – also known as SAD 17 – is like most educators when it comes to what he does. Committed. Dedicated. Smart. Visionary. Results oriented.

But Colpitts is also a realist. He recognizes that a more connected world – a digitally engaged one – presents challenges for his school district that haven’t been seen in public education in more than a century.

It was beneath that backdrop and within that framework that Colpitts, administrators, students, teachers and community members stood before a community forum for the district to map out a long-term plan for the district, something which hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.

Such sessions are healthy. They give educators – the people who set policy, enact it and teach the children – an opportunity to coalesce with their primary constituents, taxpayers and parents who are deeply committed to a good public education system.

In a perfect world – some believe that is a far-fetched notion these days – such cooperation would underscore a healthy school system where students are prepared with the basics at home, fundamentals that are reinforced in a safe academic environment where the climate for learning is one where students and parents take ownership for the students’ education.

High sounding in today’s language but it’s something to strive for in any dialect. It’s also something on the verge of being permanently lost.

For all the talk about who’s doing digital this and digital that, and what countries’ students are learning at a far more rapid rate than students in the United States, a far more insidious and nefarious element is lurking at the door of public education, not only for SAD 17 but for school districts across Maine, and even the entire United States.

The enemy combatant here is charter schools. They are seemingly – and almost seemlessly – beginning to make inroads into Maine. They have the unbending support of many public officials, mostly because of their deep pockets and their ability to frame an education dialogue that sounds authentic and reasonable but is in reality a dangerous impediment to the very bedrock of public education, which is that every child deserves an opportunity to learn.

Charter schools, unlike the Jeffersonian educational model, are driven by financial motivations. They can talk test scores. They can talk benchmarks. They can talk graduation rates. But at the end of their educational day, charter schools are driven primarily for and by the rates of their investments. They don’t envision schoolchildren the way they’ve traditionally been seen. They see them as part of a larger financial enterprise cloaked beneath the veneer of public education. A troubled student is a negative element in the portfolio, prey for a roaming shark.

Maine, with is size-able population of poor students in its public schools, is ripe for the takeover of its public schools by charter operators. Another licence to operate charters in Maine was recently granted. That invaribaly means more will follow.

By painting a bleak picture of academic achievement and high costs, charters can come in to a state or town and hoodwink an entire school district and its elected leadership into believing they have all the answers, just as long as the districts have all the assets, such as available infrastructure and student populations.

The mantra put forth by former President George W. Bush of, “No Child Left Behind” has now been transformed by the charter movement into not all children are invited.

Take a few examples. In New Orleans, a city devastated a little more than eight years ago by this nation’s worst natural disaster – some argue with authority it was also mankind’s worst man-made disaster – charter schools have become ground zero for the so-called “Charter School Reform Movement.”

It’s a movement, alright, but not in the positive context most Americans are familiar.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it gave the so-called reformers the perfect storm – pun clearly intended – to dismantle a troubled system and replace it with an exclusive one. School teachers, many of whom had to evacuate the city only to lose all their lifelong possessions, now suddenly lost their jobs. They were summarily fired – they’ve won one court battle for compensation – and replaced by inexperienced “Teach For America” beneficiaries, pedagogical opportunists who never had a clue of the culture they were suddenly empowered to teach.

Mainers probably never give it a thought when they send their kids to school every morning, even on a cold one such as the ones we’ve had recently. Mainers probably don’t consider that their children, especially those that aren’t as financially endowed as others or those who may lack in some of the educational amenities of others, would be seen in a different light if charters had their way.

Think of what a “charter” is. Remember the charter bus that took those who could afford it on a long trip? That “bus” picked up people at a certain location, dropped them off at another, and no one besides the original passengers could board it. Today we have charter trips for sports teams, buses regular people can’t just hop on and off.

Charter schools are no different. They often cater to an educated elite, siphoning off the top the very best students in a particular public school and leaving the traditional public schools with the worst. It is unfair, it is unethical and it is un-American.

But it’s profitable.

Of course, such schools have their own built-in overhead that is not found in the public school buildings they utilize at taxpayer expense but the high salaries of their owners and operators. Many of these “operators” have little actual education or teaching experience, but they have managed to manipulate the educational systems across the country to position themselves as the next set of education abolitionists when in fact they are promulgating a caste system in public education that threatens its very foundational core.

In her book, “Reign of Error,” author Diane Ravitch illustrates in undeniable detail how the charter school movement – “The Hoax of Privatization” is how she describes it – is a threat to the very survival of public schools in the United States. It is about public education’s demise and destruction. She argues how No Child Left Behind and even President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” use measurements such as test scores to fire teachers for under-performing students.

Maine has a lot of public school teachers. Maine has a lot of poor students who come from troubled homes. Maine has, as the community forum pointed out, some serious challenges ahead.

But after the forum and before the next batch of charters come up for approval, Mainers have two choices. They can stop charters before it’s too late or they can sit by and watch Maine become post-Katrina New Orleans lite.

The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board