May 3, 2013

Maine charter school funding is a lesson in controversy

Some raise concerns as the Education Committee looks at making this a line item in the state budget.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – Members of the Legislature's Education Committee reviewing plans to change how the state's charter schools are funded say they are not inclined to support a plan by the LePage administration to spread out funding among all schools. Instead, they want to look at paying for charter schools as a line item in the state budget.

Two schools, Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, are both currently funded through a miscellaneous line item in the state budget.

But charter school supporters say moving the funding for charter schools also into the budget would make it a target for critics and jeopardize each charter school's ability to count on consistent funding each year.

"It's going to get wired right into the political agenda," said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. "Once you put (the funding) out there as a line item, it politicizes it and it gives them no security."

Currently, charter schools are funded by local school districts that send students to a charter school, with state per-pupil funding following those students to the charter school.

That has a disproportionate impact on a handful of districts located near charter schools.

School Administrative District 54, based in Skowhegan, will lose more than $625,000 in the next school year because of the opening of two nearby charter schools, Cornville Regional Charter School and Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

The proposal from Republican Gov. Paul LePage's education commissioner, first made last month, was seen as a potential compromise on several bills that seek changes to the current charter school funding mechanism.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen's proposal would effectively treat charter schools like public school districts, so charter schools would receive subsidies directly from the state, not from the districts.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she didn't like that proposal because it means local property tax money, which funds local school budgets, would be sent to a charter school in another town.

"The property tax aspect is of significant concern," said Millett, Senate chairwoman of the Education Committee. "It just flies in the face of what's appropriate for property taxes."

Another committee member said it didn't seem fair to ask school districts to give up funds if they don't have any students going to a charter school.

"I think people are concerned about taking that chunk off the top" of earmarked education funds known as Essential Programs and Services, said Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick. One immediate effect of linking charter school funding to the budget is that the Legislature would be voting on it, rendering it susceptible to partisan fights. Also, the Education Department could propose cutting EPS funding by an amount equal to the full funding of charter schools, effectively still spreading out the cost among all schools.

"I'm still sitting on the fence on this," Daughtry said, adding that she would like to find funds to earmark for charter school funding so the money won't come out of EPS.

Almost all aspects of charter schools in Maine have already been the subjects of highly partisan, political arguments.

Republicans claim that Democrats have introduced bills that would undercut Maine's charter school law.

Bowen has described several of the Democratic-sponsored bills to alter the funding formula as an attack against charter schools in general.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or:

ngallagher@mainetoday.com

 

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