Politics

March 30, 2013

Critics: Bills designed 'to kill' Maine charter schools

Hearings on Monday will discuss bills about how charter schools are funded and if they should require voter approval.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – The Legislature's Education Committee will hold hearings Monday on a handful of bills to cut school districts' payments to charter schools and require local voters' approval of new charter schools.

Supporters of charter schools will rally at the State House before the hearings to oppose the bills, which one advocate said would jeopardize the establishment and operation of charter schools in Maine.

"These bills have really touched a nerve," said Judith Jones, chairwoman of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. "It's so mean-spirited. This legislation is designed to kill the schools."

The bills' sponsors said they are trying to protect school districts, their students, and the taxpayers who elect school board members and vote on local school budgets.

Charter schools are funded by money transferred from the school districts where their students live. They are privately operated, but are considered public schools and do not charge tuition.

Education Committee House Chairman Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay said he and many other Democrats are concerned about budget cuts already facing traditional public schools and the state's failure to live up to a voter mandate to pay 55 percent of public education costs.

"Our view in general is that we should be supporting the public schools up to that level at least before we start siphoning off money to other schools," MacDonald said.

MacDonald sponsored one of the bills the committee will hear on Monday, L.D. 533, which would bar charter schools from receiving any of the local tax money raised by a school district.

Current law requires a school district to send its state-determined per-pupil allocation to a charter school for each resident student who goes there. The state funds part of that allocation, then local taxes make up the rest.

MacDonald's bill would require the school district to transfer only the portion of the per-pupil allocation funded by the state.

Another bill before the committee would reduce the amount transferred to half of the total per-pupil allocation. School districts would not have to pay anything for students who previously attended private schools or were home-schooled. That bill, L.D. 889, is sponsored by Paul Bennett, R-Kennebunk.

MacDonald's bill also targets virtual charter schools, which would receive only 20 percent of a district's per-pupil allocation. He said he doesn't want public money supporting out-of-state virtual education companies that have applied to run virtual charter schools in Maine.

"That's my tax money as a local taxpayer going out into a private, for-profit corporation," MacDonald said.

The Maine Charter School Commission has also shown skepticism about virtual charter schools, twice rejecting applications for two schools to be run by Virginia-based K12 Inc. and Maryland-based Connections Education.

Several Democratic legislators are sponsoring bills this session to restrict the establishment or funding of such schools.

Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, said her bill, L.D. 1057, is not intended to harm charter schools, although it would end all transfers of money from school districts.

Kusiak's bill would require the state to create a funding source for charter schools separate from the aid provided to school districts.

Virtual charter schools would be barred from receiving any state or local funds except for students who enroll because of educational disruptions such as homelessness, medical emergencies or foster care placement.

"I do not want to have local tax dollars go out of a school district's jurisdiction or go out of (a school administrative unit) to support a school over which the taxpayers have no say," Kusiak said.

Local control is also a concern for Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. His bill, L.D. 1056, would make charter school authorizations by the Maine Charter School Commission subject to local voters' approval in the municipalities where the schools would recruit students.

Jones, of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, said that would make it almost impossible for charter schools to open. She said local residents have a say during public hearings on charter school applications.

Chenette said a public hearing isn't sufficient because only a few people may attend, and the Charter School Commission is not bound by the input.

He said he would support any charter school approved by local voters because then it's clear what the community wants."

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

 

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