April 2, 2013

Maine charter school bills called 'death by cuts'

Three proposals would separate funding from public schools; critics are not happy with the plans.

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

AUGUSTA — State Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Monday proposed legislation which would cut school districts’ payments to Maine charter schools is a direct attack on charter schools in general.

“If making it impossible for charter schools to succeed in Maine is indeed the intent of the three bills, I would ask that sponsors of these bills, for the sake of making their intentions clear, abandon this ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach these bills represent and simply introduce legislation to repeal the charter school law,” Bowen said.

Bowen testified Monday before the Legislature’s Education Committee. Dozens of people on both sides of the issue testified during the four-hour hearing.

Under the state law that passed in 2011, a school district must give a charter school its state-determined per-pupil allocation for each resident student who attends the charter school. The state funds part of that allocation, and local taxes make up the rest.

Several people who spoke in favor of the bills came from Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, which is between two charter schools. The district is expected to lose more than $400,000 in funding to charter schools this year and more than $600,000 next year.

“The loss of $1 million over this two-year period has been devastating to our local schools. This revenue simply cannot be replaced through increased taxes on our local citizens,” RSU 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry told the committee. “These monies ... will come from the elimination of staff, programs, supplies, extracurricular activities, books, technology for the remaining 2,600-plus students in our district.”

Another district official, Mary Turbyne, said, “I’m watching as the current monies for charter schools are helping to dismantle an equitable public education. ... Shame on us!”

— L.D. 533, sponsored by Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, would bar charter schools from receiving any of the tax money raised by a school district. On Monday, MacDonald said he was amending the bill to eliminate even the state-funded portion of the per-pupil allocation. Instead, the state should establish a separate line item to fund charter schools, he said.

— L.D. 889, sponsored by Paul Bennett, R-Kennebunk, would reduce the amount transferred from school districts to charter schools to half of the per-pupil allocation. Districts would not pay anything for students who previously attended private schools or were home-schooled.

— L.D. 1057, sponsored by Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, would end all transfers of money from school districts and require the state to create a funding source for charter schools separate from the aid provided to school districts. Virtual charter schools could not receive any state or local funds except for students who enroll because of educational disruptions such as homelessness, medical emergencies or foster care placement.

Several students and parents of children in charter schools spoke passionately about the importance of having an alternative to their local schools.

They said the funding shouldn’t change, because the charter schools are public schools and should be funded the same way as traditional schools.

“Public charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition by law,” said Justin Belanger, the founder of Cornville Regional Charter School, one of two charter schools that are open in the state.

“It is not right to ask parents or the school to raise approximately $4,100 per student. This violates the purpose and intent of the public charter school law,” Belanger said. “It would have been far easier to start a private school. However, we feel that all students should have school choice, not just those that can afford it.”

But several superintendents, teachers and education organizations said they’re the ones who can’t afford the current system.

When school districts lose funding to charter schools, they don’t save any money by not having to teach those children; they have the same number of teachers and classrooms – and less funding.

“The loss of 50 students (in RSU 54) did not decrease our operating costs,” said Jennifer Poirier, the mother of three children in the district. “As a parent, I worry about the opportunities being taken away from my children. ... With larger class sizes, will they receive the individual attention that they need?”

“We need to be shoring up existing schools, not chipping away at them,” MacDonald said. “There is no reason to be rushing to take money away from public schools. They are doing their job.”

MacDonald said he plans to change his proposal so that it would not take effect until 2015-16, to give charter schools time to plan for a change in funding.

Earlier Monday, Gov. Paul LePage made a brief appearance at a pro-charter school press conference, reiterating his longstanding support for the schools.

Several speakers said the legislation that established charter schools, and their funding, was thoughtfully crafted, “sensible” and received bipartisan support.

“To gut the law now, before these schools have even had a chance to succeed or fail – or in some cases even open – is unfair and poor public policy,” said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

The schools are given five-year charters, which must be renewed.

Joe Grady, chairman of Harpswell Coastal Academy, said his organization had to meet rigorous standards before the Maine Charter School Commission to be approved to open this fall.

“So I was disappointed and a bit alarmed that there was so much action up here,” said Grady. “I feel like we have a great law on the books.”
 
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
ngallagher@pressherald.com

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