AUGUSTA – A standoff is developing between the Maine Department of Education and Democratic lawmakers over a new, more equitable way to fund public charter schools.

Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee want to fund charter schools as a separate line item in each state budget, while the department prefers treating the schools like existing, conventional school systems supported by a state subsidy.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said line-item funding in each state budget would make charter schools a political football, and those opposed to the schools could try to hold funding up.

“They should know they’ve got a source of funding and it’s the same with the conventional schools,” he said. “It’s a very simple, transparent way to do it.”

However, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the committee’s Senate chairwoman, said Democrats on the panel believe making it a line item is more transparent.

“I think it’s important for the state to know how much money’s being spent on charter schools, and if you don’t pull that out, you don’t really have a measurable amount,” she said.

One thing is clear: Maine’s charter-school funding system will likely change.

Under current law, schools in close proximity to public charter schools bear a large part of the funding burden. That’s because per-pupil state funding now follows each charter-school student who leaves a traditional public school, diverting money from the public school system.

The Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54, for example, will lose more than $625,000 in the next school year because of two nearby charter schools — Cornville Regional Charter School and Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

Bowen said many public schools have asked the department for more predictability in cost. A bill before the committee, L.D. 1057, sponsored by Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, would require the department to establish a new budget account to fund charter schools’ operation.

Speaking on that bill, Bowen proposed that the Legislature allow the department to calculate per-pupil costs for charter school students. That method would determine the state subsidy to charter schools, effectively treating them like normal school administrative units.

But lawmakers have been cool to that plan, saying it means that some of virtually all municipalities’ property-tax money would go to schools far from the community where the money originated.

Millett said the Legislature’s budget-writing committee could fund charter schools separately from other aid to public schools.

In other business Tuesday, the Education Committee received a bill from the LePage administration, sponsored by Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, to strengthen school approval standards. According to a summary, the bill would require schools identified as struggling to create an improvement plan and take measurable steps to improve school performance.

Failure to implement the plan could lead to the Education Department’s pulling a school’s basic approval, after which the state would allow students to transfer to other Maine public schools, with the student’s home district paying the cost of tuition and transportation.

David Connerty-Marin, a department spokesman, said he knows of no case in which the state has revoked a school’s basic approval. The bill, however, would provide a new pathway to do so.

Bowen said that although the improvement plan can be taken hand in hand with a recently released A-F grading system for schools, it was developed separately.

Bowen said the goal isn’t to punish schools, but to “triage” problems.

But, Millett, the Cape Elizabeth senator, called the bill “the companion piece” to the A-F grading system, which Democrats have attacked.

Republicans have said Democrats are blocking any education reform because of allegiances to education interests such as the Maine Education Association, a teachers union.

 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme