AUGUSTA – Maine is on the path to becoming the 41st state to allow public charter schools.

Lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 9-4 Friday to advance a measure sponsored by state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, that would allow school districts, regional groups and a State Charter Commission to authorize public charter schools.

Charter schools have been a controversial topic in the Legislature in recent years. They are a top priority for Gov. Paul LePage.

“The ultimate goal is, how do we provide the best education to these kids?” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told the committee. “We’ve got to figure out different ways to do this work.”

Public charter schools, which students attend voluntarily, are required to follow state and federal academic requirements. They cannot teach religious practices or discriminate against students or teachers, according to the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

Supporters say charter schools allow for more innovation and, when they’re successful, can help students who may have struggled in the current system.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who voted against the bill, said he is concerned about how the creation of new schools would affect Maine’s current education system. He and two other Democrats who voted in the minority said they want to delay the proposal until next year.

Roger Shaw, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of School Administrative District 42 in Mars Hill, told the committee that he thinks the measure would hurt Maine’s public school system.

Per-pupil state funding would follow any student who left a regular public school for a charter school.

“Assuming that 10 percent of our students were to attend an optional school that would pull money away from our existing school, it would cost my school district $265,000. That’s just in general-purpose aid,” Shaw said. “Federal money would also leave in proportion to the student.”

The measure, L.D. 1553, was amended to allow only 10 new schools to be created in the next 10 years. None would be allowed to open before July 1, 2012.

“Too often, we’re worried about the institutions and not necessarily kids,” said Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond. “I think it’s worth trying.”

Some Democrats who supported the bill said after the vote that they were disappointed there had not been more time to fully vet the legislation.

The bill will be taken up by the full Legislature in the coming weeks.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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