AUGUSTA — Charter school advocates and the Maine Department of Education are opposing a bill that would require the state to recalibrate how it funds virtual charter schools.
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, defended the measure, saying the method of funding should take into consideration the actual costs of virtual charter schools, which he said are less than those of brick-and-mortar schools.
“I believe our existing charter school legislation has a basic flaw in the provision for funding virtual charter schools,” said MacDonald, House chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. He presented his bill, L.D. 1617, to the committee at a public hearing on Monday.
The bill is being closely watched in part because there are several other virtual charter school proposals already under consideration.
Next Monday, the Maine Charter School Commission will vote on whether to authorize two virtual charter schools to open this fall. Meanwhile, another bill, L.D. 1736, which would impose a moratorium on all virtual charter schools until next January, is making its way through the Legislature.
The moratorium bill, which had its first reading in the Senate last week, would give state officials and educators time to come up with a plan to create a state-run virtual school that would provide online learning tools to all Maine students through the traditional school districts.
MacDonald has significantly amended his bill since it was introduced last session, with changes such as dropping a provision that would have required a vote of the full Legislature to authorize a virtual charter school.
Currently, funding for charter school students “follows” students from their sending school districts. MacDonald argued that virtual schools have lower costs, since they don’t feed or house students or incur costs associated with a brick-and-mortar facility.
Virtual charter schools would have “large fiscal efficiencies built in, yet the funding mechanism does not recognize these,” he said. His bill would require the Department of Education to develop a method of funding the virtual charter schools based on their “real costs.”
“If they get approved, (this) ensures they’re not taking money from taxpayers that they don’t deserve,” he said.
The virtual charter schools themselves are nonprofit organizations run by Mainers who form a board of directors, but they contract for educational services through large for-profit national companies that control and manage most aspects of the school. The board directly employs the top administrators, usually the head of school and the chief financial officer.
Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Maine Department of Education, said coming up with a per-unit cost for virtual students would be “a fairly massive undertaking” since the department doesn’t have data to determine the cost factors for virtual charter schools.
But Maine Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said proposals from virtual charter school applicants show that their costs are actually similar to traditional public schools. She noted that Maine, for example, requires top school administrators to work out of a Maine office.
The committee will take up the bill again in a work session.
The Maine Education Association, the union representing public school teachers, supports the bill.
The bill also would require that virtual charter schools contract out no more than 30 percent of the school budget, not outsource instructional or grading functions outside the United States, and have all staff instructors be certified to teach in Maine.
It also would require the schools to give teachers terms and conditions of employment that are “comparable” to those of public school teachers, including tenure, sabbaticals, health coverage and participation in the Maine Public Employees Retirement System.
Friedman said the department opposes those teacher requirements.
“Part of the purpose of creating a charter school model is to allow flexibility in operations, including hiring, advancement and compensation of staff, and these provisions would eliminate that flexibility,” Friedman said.
Lapoint noted the commission was already working on several issues raised in the bill, from providing financial oversight to giving annual status reports on the charters to the education commissioner.
“In the humble opinion of the commission, all of the concerns in L.D. 1617 have been addressed and there would appear to be no reason not to allow the commission to continue to do the work that has been assigned to them under the present charter laws,” Lapoint said.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: