AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Education Committee reviewing plans to change how the state’s charter schools are funded say they are not inclined to support the LePage administration’s plan to spread out funding among all school districts, and instead want to consider paying for charter schools as a line item in the state budget.
Two schools, Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, are both currently funded through a line item in the state budget.
But charter school supporters say moving the funding for charter schools into the budget would make it a target for critics and jeopardize each charter school’s ability to count on consistent funding each year.
“It’s going to get wired right into the political agenda,” said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “Once you put (the funding) out there as a line item it politicizes it and it gives them no security.”
Currently, charter schools are funded by local school districts whose students attend the schools, with state per-pupil funding following those students to the charter school.
That has a disproportionate impact on a handful of districts located near charter schools.
School Administrative District 54, based in Skowhegan, 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.
The plan from Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s education commissioner was first proposed last month, and was seen as a potential compromise on several bills that suggest changes to how charter schools are funded.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s proposal would effectively treat charter schools like public school districts, so charter schools would receive subsidies directly from the state, not from the districts.
Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, said she didn’t like that proposal because it means that municipalities would have to make up the portion of state money that is going to charter schools instead of to local districts. That, she said, essentially puts an added strain on property taxes, which fund local schools, and puts towns and cities in the position of having to indirectly fund charter schools in other towns.
“The property tax aspect is of significant concern,” said Millett, chairwoman of the Education Committee. “It just flies in the face of what’s appropriate for property taxes.”
Another committee member said she didn’t like the administration proposal because it didn’t seem fair to ask school districts to give up funds if they don’t have any students going to a charter school.
“I think people are concerned about taking that chunk off the top” of earmarked education funds, known as Essential Programs and Services, or EPS, said Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick.
One immediate effect of linking charter school funding to the budget is that it means the state Legislature would be voting on it, rendering it susceptible to partisan fights. Also, the department could still cut an equal amount from EPS, the statewide school funding mechanism, by an amount equal to the full funding for charters – effectively still spreading out the cost among all schools.
“I’m still sitting on the fence on this,” Daughtry said. She would like to find funds to earmark for charter school funding so the money won’t come out of EPS, she said.
Almost all aspects of charter schools in Maine have been the subject of highly partisan, political arguments.
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.
Bowen has described several of the Democratic-sponsored bills to alter the funding formula as an attack against charter schools in general.