March 29, 2013

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

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
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.

Jones, of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, expressed dismay at legislators' attempts to cut charter school funding. The four charter schools that have been approved built their financial plans based on current law, Jones said, and it's also a matter of equity for students attending different types of schools.

"If these were your grandchildren, would you want to see one grandchild have half the resources or less of another grandchild?" she said.

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 General Purpose Aid provided to school districts.

In addition, virtual charter schools would be barred from receiving any state or local funds except for students who enroll because of an educational disruption, such as homelessness, a medical emergency 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 — no way to address curriculum, instruction, class sizes, any of the kinds of things that local taxpayers do when they come to their local district budget meeting," Kusiak said.

The bill recognizes the funding needs of charter schools, Kusiak said, and is intended to provide more money to go around.

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 voter approval in a referendum in the municipalities where the school would recruit students.

Jones said that would make it almost impossible for charter schools to open and that local residents have a say during the public hearing portion of the existing application process and in the decision on where to enroll their children in school.

"People vote with their feet because this is an entirely voluntary model," she said. "If they don't like the option that has been created through the public charter school model, they don't choose to send their kids. This is the real voting."

Chenette said a public hearing isn't sufficient because only a few people may attend, and the Charter School Commission is not bound by their input. He said he would support any charter school approved by local voters because then it's clear what the community wants.

"This has nothing to do with whether you like or dislike charter schools," he said. "This is all about local control."

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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