May 23, 2013

Maine panel rejects two LePage education bills

The panel votes not to support student transfers out of struggling schools or more than 10 charters.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee quickly rejected two major education reform proposals from Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday.

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Baxter Academy is Portland, which plans to open in the fall, is among the charter schools approved in Maine. A bill suggested by the governor would lift the limit on such schools.

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The votes by the Education Committee were no surprise: Democrats and teachers union officials have long opposed the governor's education policy.

L.D. 1529, a governor's bill sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, would eliminate the current limit of 10 public charter schools in Maine and allow public money to be given to certain religious schools that meet the state's approval criteria for other private schools.

The bill was rejected 11-2, with Democrats and three Republicans on the committee voting against it and two Republicans voting for it.

A short debate before the vote reflected lawmakers' concerns about separation of church and state and the prospect of changing Maine's charter-school law just two years after it was enacted.

"I think that we have a good law in this state," said Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, who voted against L.D. 1529. "We need to keep the law the way it is and get 10 really, really good charter schools so we can prove that they do work before we increase that cap."

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, voted for the bill. He said he supported it philosophically, but he acknowledged it would be virtually impossible to pass, with Democratic majorities in the Legislature.

"Politically, obviously, this isn't going anywhere," he said. "I think choice is a good thing. I think religious schools should be considered."

According to Department of Education data, 22 religious schools would be eligible for public funding under Mason's bill, including Cheverus and Catherine McAuley high schools in Portland. Many other religious schools would not qualify, including Calvary Chapel Christian School in Orrington and the Friends School of Portland, a Quaker school in Yarmouth.

Mason's proposal is nearly identical to a bill that McClellan sponsored for the governor in 2012. That bill gained little political traction in the last Legislature, which was led by Republicans.

Earlier this month, LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the bill was submitted this year because "it's bringing attention to something that is about getting more options for students and parents."

The other LePage-backed bill, L.D. 1510, sponsored by Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, would let students at any schools that fail to make notable improvements within two years enroll in other schools, at the first district's expense.

It also would require schools identified as struggling to create improvement plans and take steps to improve performance.

The committee voted Johnson's bill down along party lines, 8-5.

Johnson, a committee member, said the bill "serves a useful purpose of putting a spotlight" on schools that need assistance. "When you're not paying close attention to them, some schools will thrive on their own and others will not," he said.

However, Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the House chair of the committee, called Johnson's bill "demoralizing" and referred to LePage's recently released A-to-F grading system for Maine schools.

"I believe in holding schools accountable, but not in this way, especially when I see it on the heels of that flawed grading system, which I have to assume in some way relates to this whole accountability process that's envisioned here," MacDonald said.

Both bills will go to the House and Senate with majority recommendations that they be rejected.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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