AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposals to expand school choice in Maine were dealt a blow Thursday by a legislative committee.

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee asked the Department of Education to come back to the next Legislature with more information about creating an open enrollment system.

Committee members said the bill came up too late in the session to get thorough consideration.

The committee also voted 10-3 against a bill to allow religious schools to receive public tuition dollars. The bill will go to the Legislature with a recommendation of “ought not to pass.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls; Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville; and Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, voted in favor of the bill on religious schools, LD 1866.

“I see this as an element of choice that should be open to anyone that wants to do it, as long as they go to a school that maintains the same standards that we apply to other public schools,” Johnson said.

Religious schools have been barred from receiving public funding since 1981. Under LD 1866, communities would pay tuition, up to a state-defined maximum, for their students who attend participating religious schools.

The Department of Education provided a list of 21 religious schools that meet the same standards as nonsectarian private schools that are approved to receive public tuition dollars.

The 21 schools are all Christian, and most are Catholic.

“The irony of this is, as I look at the schools that could take advantage of this, my guess is that most of them won’t want a piece of it, just because it’s going to actually make them dumb themselves down to some degree,” McClellan said.

Opponents of the bill raised several objections in the public hearing, including money for public schools being siphoned away, and commingling church and state.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen presented a letter from Maine Attorney General William Schneider asserting that L.D. 1866 is similar to a voucher program in Cleveland that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to Ohio, Colorado and Florida have voucher programs that allow parents to choose religious schools, according to information provided by the Maine Department of Education.

McClellan said he received hundreds of emails for and against the four education reform bills the committee considered this week, and most of the opponents to LD 1866 worry about diverting funds from public schools.

“The comments I’ve gotten haven’t been about the religious piece of it,” he said.

“It’s been about the pie, and this is going to dilute the pie, which is a fair argument. I really expected there to be a religious firestorm, and I just haven’t seen that develop at all.”

The potential for schools to lose students, and thus state aid, was also a concern in the committee’s discussions of LD 1854, which would allow school districts and private schools to create open enrollment programs and draw students from elsewhere, with state funding.

“In theory, I believe in choice,” said Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais.

“But, in reality, in Washington County, it would kill the public schools. We’re not getting enough funds.”

The committee voted unanimously to direct the Department of Education to create a group that will draw up new legislation, potentially including a pilot program.

The group — including teachers, administrators and parents — will consider specific concerns raised by committee members, including the possibility that open enrollment would not serve the needs of special-education students or students from low-income families.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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