AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Education Committee began reviewing a series of proposals Tuesday that would change the funding mechanism for charter schools, partly to address concerns about its financial impact on public school districts.
One of the bills submitted by Democrats would eliminate the provision that the public school district where a student lives pays the cost for the student to attend a charter school.
The most viable proposal may be one from Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s education commissioner. The preliminary plan could become the foundation for compromise.
The proposal from Commissioner Stephen Bowen would effectively treat charter schools like public school districts, so charter schools would receive subsidies directly from the state, not from the districts.
Even some supporters of charter schools have acknowledged that the system could be improved, partly because it puts the burden on districts that lose students to charter schools while other districts that don’t lose students suffer no financial impact.
Bowen’s plan would distribute the funding burden across Maine’s public school system.
“You’re not going to have a disproportionate impact on any single district,” he told the Education Committee. “This is a state-level initiative.”
Under Bowen’s proposal, a school district would receive its usual state funding in the first year after a student leaves for a charter school. The district’s funding would decrease over time, but the decrease would be less than what the district must pay to a charter school under the present system.
Lawmakers were receptive to the plan.
“I feel that we’re beginning to set the table around something which we will be able to reach a good compromise,” said Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee’s House chairman.
But there’s a catch: The state would effectively be paying for a student to attend both a charter school and a public school district.
Committee members noted that the state already has trouble complying with Maine law, which requires the state to pay 55 percent of public education costs. They questioned whether the state could afford Bowen’s plan, but he expressed optimism that the proposal could work.
School Administrative District 54, based in Skowhegan, offers an example of the impact of the current system. The district says it will lose more than $625,000 in the next school year because of the opening of two nearby charter schools, Cornville Regional Charter School and Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.
SAD 54 says 60 students from the district will attend the Cornville school and 10 students in grades nine to 12 will go to Good Will-Hinckley.
Portland is confronting a similar situation with the pending opening of the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science, which expects to enroll 21 Portland students this fall. Each of those students would cost Portland an estimated $10,000.
Tuesday’s development may remove some of the heat from the politics of charter schools, which have become a highly partisan issue as the legislative session has progressed.
Republicans claim that Democrats, who have majorities in the House and Senate, have introduced bills that would undercut Maine’s charter school law just two years after the Legislature enacted it. They also note that Democratic allies, such as the Maine Education Association, have opposed charter schools.
Earlier this month, Bowen said during a public hearing that several of the Democratic-sponsored bills to alter the funding formula were a direct attack against charter schools in general.
“If making it impossible for charter schools to succeed in Maine is indeed the intent of the three bills, I would ask that sponsors of these bills, for the sake of making their intentions clear, abandon this ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach these bills represent and simply introduce legislation to repeal the charter school law,” Bowen said.
Also Tuesday, Democrats on the committee were cool to L.D. 439, a bill that would require the Maine Charter School Commission to explain to an applicant why it denies any proposal to authorize a charter school.
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, the bill’s sponsor, and the LePage administration have said the commission should better assist applicants in the review process. As Bowen put it, the administration wants to “give something back to (applicants) other than a big denial stamp.”
Democrats argued that such legislation blurs the line between authorizing and advocacy. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said the current draft of the bill makes “the charter commission activists.”
The committee tabled the proposal.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
On Twitter: @stevemistler