March 29, 2013

Bills to limit charter schools funding, approval slated for Monday hearings

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Legislature's education committee on Monday will hear a handful of bills to cut school district payments to charter schools and require local voter approval of new charter schools.

Supporters of charter schools will rally at the State House before the committee hearings to oppose the bills, which one advocate said will 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 local 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 and Cultural Affairs Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Bruce MacDonald said he and many of his fellow 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, of Boothbay, 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 every resident student that enrolls there. The state subsidizes part of that allocation based on a district's property valuation, 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 and not any money raised locally.

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

State subsidy covers most of the allocation for many school districts, but almost none of it for others. For low subsidy receivers, therefore, most of the money going to a charter school would be local tax dollars.

MacDonald said he is thinking of amending his bill to further reduce payments to charter schools because it would not be helpful to high subsidy receivers such as Skowhegan-based Regional School Unit 54. The district has paid about $450,000 to two charter schools this year.

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 the dubious success of 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, and approved by the unelected state charter commission," 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.

Maine law on funding charter schools is already considered weak by charter advocates such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center for Education Reform. It does not give charter schools access to the additional local funding voters can approve for school districts or state funds for facilities.

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