Gov. Paul LePage is preparing legislation that would eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Maine, an initiative sure to cause significant debate among the education community and lawmakers who already face difficult funding issues.

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty- Marin said Sunday that Le- Page’s charter school legislation is still under development but confirmed the governor is intent on abolishing the limit of 10 new charter schools in Maine over the next decade.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, DBoothbay, House chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said Sunday that LePage’s proposal was news to him. He said he has been a critic of charter schools in the past because they take taxpayer money from public schools and aren’t controlled by democratically elected bodies.

“I am forced to pay my taxes by law and that money goes into our local treasury. By making a private decision to go to a charter school, a family can essentially pull that money out. Just by itself, that to me is a problem. It’s pretty close to taxation without representation,” said MacDonald.

As with most legislative action in recent years, much of the debate likely will focus on how the change would affect already stretched public school funding.

Opponents of the charter school law have long argued that charter schools will pull too much funding from public schools. Under Maine’s charter school law, state education dollars follow students from their previous public schools to the charter school of their choice.

LePage and other proponents insist that providing options to Maine students is crucial to reform.

“From my point of view, it’s really about everybody taking a look at whether we’re using our education dollars to their best use,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the ranking Senate Republican on the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Though school funding is at the forefront, it is one among several issues that will make for a busy education agenda for the 126th Legislature, which convenes today.

Those issues include several major policy changes enacted in the past two years, ranging from the implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation and training system to an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula, as well as heightened concerns about school security, spurred by last month’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Any way you cut it, balancing education policy changes with available funding won’t be easy, according to Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“When you look at the past five or six years of resource erosion, eventually you get into core programs,” said Brown. “I think that’s where schools in Maine are right now. You end up needing to look at programs that unfortunately impact people and teachers. We’re all working really hard to insulate kids from those impacts, but with the erosion of funding that we’ve seen, that’s become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible.”

According to data provided by Brown’s organization, state and federal school funding in 2013 will fall below levels not seen since at least 2007, when general purpose aid for education stood at $914 million. With the help of $163 million in federal stimulus funds that came to Maine between 2009 and 2012, as well as $37 million in increased state aid during the past two years, school funding remained above $900 million per year, but will sink to about $897 million in the current fiscal year, due in part to the end of federal stimulus funding and a recent curtailment order by LePage.

“The first and foremost thing on everyone’s mind is working through these funding issues,” said Brown.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, incoming Senate Majority Leader, said his caucus is focused on providing as much funding as possible.

“As Democrats we’re very focused on limiting the impact to our public schools,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to advocate for a strong position for public education.”

FOR MORE, see the Bangor Daily News at bangordailynews.com.



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