A school-choice proposal from the LePage administration that would allow religious schools in Maine to receive tuition from public school districts is generating a combination of anger, approval and questions about how it would be implemented.

Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen proposed the Schools of Choice open-enrollment program last week as part of a plan for sweeping education changes they say would put students first and provide more choices in education. Other aspects of the plan would expand career and technical education in high schools and change the way teachers and principals are evaluated.

While the school-choice proposal would expand access to public funding for secular private schools — some of which already receive dollars from public school districts — it would call for the Legislature to overturn a long-standing state law that bans public funding of religious schools.

Religious school leaders said they would welcome the additional revenue if some of their students came with public tuition dollars, though they’re not sure whether they would qualify for the funding, in part because the pending legislation has yet to be submitted.

“We love the idea,” said Keith Dawson, head of the Greater Portland Christian School in South Portland. “We have students whose parents pay their local taxes, but we don’t get any benefit.”

If his school received public funding, Dawson said, it would want to maintain “the ability to teach based on what we feel is best for our students.” The school wouldn’t be willing to provide instruction on evolution and sex, he said, which must be taught in public schools under the state’s detailed, subject-by-subject curriculum outlined in the Maine Learning Results.

State education officials said many religious schools wouldn’t be required to follow the Maine Learning Results to qualify for public funding, but meeting other criteria probably would prove too expensive and time-consuming to be worthwhile. They would have to adopt reporting and auditing practices similar to those of public schools, and all teachers would have to be state-certified, which would drive up salaries and operating costs for many religious schools.

“We don’t know how many would take advantage of the program,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “But experience suggests many would not.”

Among LePage’s education proposals, spending public money on private schools, religious or secular, appears to be the most controversial and likely to struggle in the Legislature. The current ban on public funding for religious schools dates back to 1981.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of Anderson v. Town of Durham, in which the Cumberland County Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the ban was constitutional under the First Amendment. While some said the high court’s decision validated the law, others said it sent a message that states could decide the issue.

More recently, two school-choice related bills died in the Senate last year, though the Legislature approved a bill to allow publicly funded and highly regulated charter schools.

“There wasn’t an appetite for (school choice) across both parties,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sits on the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

“We’re already underfunding our K-12 public schools by more than $400 million,” Alfond said. “The governor isn’t putting students first. He’s putting his ideology first. Diverting public dollars to private and religious schools is undercutting our public schools.”

Alfond also questioned whether the Legislature would overturn the ban on public funding of religious schools given Maine’s long-standing emphasis on separation of church and state.

Portland Superintendent Jim Morse, who has worked in urban and rural school districts, worries that both would suffer from lost revenue under the school-choice proposal.

“Portland has a long history of competition with private schools and it couldn’t afford to lose those tuition dollars,” Morse said. “It would be even harder for rural school districts where the poverty rate is even higher.”

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, also an education committee member, has a different take on the changes proposed by fellow Republicans LePage and Bowen.

“I love that the governor and the commissioner are trying to put kids first,” said McClellan, a former school board member. “I think it’s fair that being a religious school in and of itself wouldn’t disqualify them from receiving public funding. I believe the barrier between church and state is being redefined.”

McClellan acknowledged that he views LePage’s proposal from a Christian perspective, but he said he wouldn’t mind if public money went to schools operated by other religions, including Jews and Muslims, as long as they followed state laws.

“I’d have to be consistent about that,” McClellan said.

Private secular schools already have access to public funding if they meet state regulations for reporting, auditing, curriculum and staff certification, among other things. In general, these are private schools that accept students from towns that don’t have comparable public schools.

Twenty-eight elementary and secondary private schools across Maine are approved to receive public funding in the form of tuition from public school districts. They include Thornton Academy in Saco, which accepts students from Regional School Unit 23 (consisting of Dayton, Old Orchard Beach and Saco); as well as North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, Waynflete School in Portland and Berwick Academy in South Berwick.

The 28 private schools approved for public funding are eligible to receive annual tuition payments from sending districts that range from $7,335 to $9,275 per student, according to Connerty-Marin. Similar tuition rates apply when students living in one public school district attend a school in another district with both superintendents’ approval.

Under the school-choice proposal, tuition dollars would follow any student who left a public school district to attend a private school approved for public funding, but that student’s departure wouldn’t reduce the sending district’s student count or state aid allocation.

The 28 approved schools are among 118 religious and secular private schools in Maine with academic programs that have been approved by the Department of Education. That means they are accredited through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges or they meet the basic requirements of Maine’s education laws, which broadly call for instruction in language arts, social studies, history, math, science, technology, health and physical education.

If more than 60 percent of students at private schools receive public funding, they must follow the more detailed and rigorous Maine Learning Results, according to state law. The same requirement would apply to religious schools if the ban on public funding were lifted, Connerty-Marin said.

Leaders of the Independent Schools Association of Midcoast Maine declined to comment on the school-choice proposal. The Independent Schools Association of Northern New England, based in Bowerbank, near Dover-Foxcroft, didn’t respond to an interview request.

All teachers at the Greater Portland Christian School are state-certified, Dawson said, but meeting other criteria could be difficult.

Officials at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said they are studying the school-choice proposal to see if their 12 elementary and three high schools across the state would qualify.

The statewide diocese requires its teachers to be state-certified, said spokeswoman Sue Bernard. Its schools already “work with the Maine Learning Results, though there is some picking and choosing,” she said.

Marc Mutty, diocesan public affairs director, said it will be difficult to determine whether diocesan schools qualify before seeing the legislation.

“We certainly hope it may help us,” Mutty said. “There may be some stipulations that conflict with the way the diocese operates.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]


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