Charter school budgets would receive money directly from the state, rather than from districts that send students to those schools, under a bill endorsed unanimously Wednesday by lawmakers on the state Education Committee.

Figuring out how to fund charter schools “has been a problem since the initial legislation” in 2011, said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, the author of L.D. 131. “Funding was always the biggest objection.”

Currently, state funding for each student is sent to local districts, and each district in turn writes a check to the charter school to cover the students the district sends there. That has led to confusion and difficulty for both charters and sending districts.

When preparing budgets in early spring, the districts have to guess how many students might be leaving for a charter and that number may change later. The charter schools have to juggle payments they receive from a dozen or more sending school districts.

Hubbell’s bill would instead spread those costs – about $6 million total for the state’s seven charter schools – among all school districts in the state. The state would treat the charters the same as other school districts when dispersing education aid. In addition, Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposes adding the additional $6 million to the state education aid budget, which would eliminate the financial impact on school districts.

“All this does is disperse the liability,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell’s bill now goes to the full Legislature.

“We are really pleased,” said Maine Charter School Commission Chairwoman Shelley Reed after the vote. “It provides appropriate funding for our public charter schools so it’s less bruising to the districts.”

Maine currently has six charter schools operating, and a seventh opening this fall. Three more would be allowed to open through 2021 under the state’s 10-school cap.

Funding the schools has been controversial because of the financial hit on school districts located near a charter school. The poster child district has been School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan, which currently has to send about $1 million a year to two nearby charter schools – Cornville Regional Charter School and Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

All sides have agreed for years that the funding issue needs to be resolved. The idea of spreading the cost among all districts was first proposed by the LePage administration in 2013.

The state Department of Education supported the funding change in Hubbell’s bill.

“This new funding mechanism would relieve the unpredictable financial impact,” of charters on districts,” DOE Director of School Finance and Operations Suzan Beaudoin told the committee during a public hearing.

This session, similar charter school funding language was included in other bills besides L.D. 131, notably the governor’s bill, L.D. 235; and L.D. 265, sponsored by Rep. Norm Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft.

Since Hubbell’s bill covered the same issue, the committee voted against moving Higgins’ bill to the legislature, and removed the charter school funding section from the governor’s bill.

Hubbell did agree to drop language in his bill calling for a one-year moratorium on virtual charter schools. The administration and the Maine Charter School Commission had both opposed the moratorium.

Also supporting Hubbell’s bill were the Maine School Management Association, Maine Principals’ Association and the Mayors’ Coalition.