Tuesday January 08, 2013 | 10:28 AM

 

 
 
Gov. Paul LePage wants to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can be certified over the next 10 years.

Lawmakers included the limit in 2011 when Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools. The reason? The charter school law is new. So are the applicants, which in some instances, are parents from communities attempting to reopen a small neighborhood school that was forced to close (the Cornville charter school and a new applicant from Harpswell are examples). 

New applicants, new law, new review board. Plenty of room for error, lawmakers reasoned. 

For those reasons, and others, Education Commissioner Steve Bowen said in at least one 2011 public forum that he would be “stunned” if more than five were authorized over the next five years. 

Why the change?  

A spokesman for the DOE told the Press Herald Monday that the 10-school cap was an “arbitrary” number and that the administration was pushing as fast as it could to provide more options for students.

There are two charter schools operating in Maine and two more have been approved to open in September. The Maine Charter School Commission has five more applications.

Perhaps the number of applications has prompted the administration to lift the cap, which by current law, would be automatically lifted in 2022.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the new Democratic majority in the Legislature will green-light the expansion. One reason: Democrats say they fear that the charter school law needs more time to be implemented. Another reason: The Maine Education Association is fiercely against it. 

The MEA, the union for public school teachers, and the National Education Association were big spenders during an election that wiped out the Republican majority that existed at the State House the past two years. 

For example, the political action committee Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a group bankrolled by the MEA and NEA, spent more than $172,000 attempting to defeat Republican candidates. The PAC's efforts were not delicate. Some portrayed targeted legislators as selling Maine children's future to corporate interests. At least one mailer pictured children with price tags over their heads. 

The LePage administration likely understands this dynamic and that the Democratic majority is unlikely to approve lifting the 10-school cap. But introducing a dead-end proposal does give the governor the chance to publicly take on the teachers union and the Democratic legislators who are likely to side with its interests.

 

— Attorney General Janet Mills is a no-nonsense gal. Gov. LePage is a no-nonsense guy. That would seem to set the stage for lots of public spats between the state’s top lawyer and the chief executive. 

But there were times during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony when one could envision Mills and LePage – wait for it – getting along. 

Mills was asked about that possibility Monday evening. 

“I could have a beer with him,” she said. 

There will be a lot of gun bills this session. One may be to repeal LD 35, a bill that the Republican majority passed last session to allow concealed firearm permit holders to leave their guns in their cars at the workplace. Business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, opposed the bill, arguing that it posed a safety risk and effectively violated the rights of private property owners. 

A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could embolden those who want to repeal the law. 

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case that would decide whether it’s unconstitutional to ban guns from places of worship.

The case was prompted by a dispute in Georgia. In 2010 the legislature there prohibited concealed firearm permit holders from bringing their guns to several types of private property, including bars, churches and nuclear power plants. 

A concealed carry group in Georgia sued the state, saying the law violated the 2nd Amendment and 1st Amendment rights. 

However, at least one lower court ruled that private property owners had a right to determine who is allowed on their own premises, and under what circumstances.

Supporters of the private property rights argument are now claiming victory because the Supreme Court declined to hear the Georgia case. 

- An omission from Monday's story about former Attorney General William Schneider moving over to LePage's Office of Policy Management: His salary. 

Schneider, the deputy director, will be paid $79,000 per year, while Richard Rosen, the director, will make $90,000. State Economist Amanda Rector will make $75,000. 

The office is expected to have seven positions. Rosen, in an email, wrote that three have been filled. 

The office has a budget of approximately $400,000. It is charged with finding $1 million annually in savings within state agencies. 

 

Democratic leadership will hold a press conference Wednesday outlining their legislative priorities. Senate President Justin Alfond, of Portland, House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, of Richmond, and House Majority Leader Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, will be putting on the show. 

 

 

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

Steve can be reached at 791-6345 or smistler@pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @stevemistler

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