May 9, 2013

Democrats' reaction cool to LePage plan for funding charter, certain religious schools

By Michael Shepherd
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- A long-awaited, sweeping school-choice bill from Gov. Paul LePage that would remove the cap on public charter schools and give public money to certain private, religious schools is getting a cool reaction from legislative Democrats.

L.D. 1529, a governor's bill sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, also would provide funding for students from low-income families to transfer to other schools and to help pay for room and board at a public charter school that is beyond a reasonable commuting distance from their homes. It also would allow colleges and universities to establish charter schools.

Under the proposal from LePage, who was educated at Catholic schools, religious schools would qualify for public funds if they comply with state school standards applicable to other private schools. That provision effectively repeals a 1981 law that prohibits public funding to sectarian schools.

If a town allows students to go to a school of their choice and it pays tuition, those students could go to a religious school if it qualifies under state standards, said Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

"This simply removes a prohibition against a certain class of schools," he said.

Democrats and education interests jumped on LePage for his proposals shortly after the bill's text was made public Thursday.

"Those areas he would venture into, I would not venture into, ever," said Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, co-chairman of the Education Committee. "He's known to be provocative and this is certainly that -- provocative."

In a Thursday news release, Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union, called the bill proof that LePage "will go to great lengths to cause even more harm to our schools."

"The public has already said they don't want their tax dollars to pay for religious or private schools," she said in the statement.

According to state data, 22 religious schools would be eligible for public funding, including Cheverus and Catherine McAuley high schools in Portland, St. Dominic Academy in Auburn and Mount Merici Academy in Waterville.

Many other religious schools would not qualify, including Calvary Chapel Christian School in Orrington and the Friends School of Portland, a Quaker school in Yarmouth.

The bill encompasses a number of longstanding items in LePage's education platform.

Current law allows for only 10 public charter schools to be approved by 2022, when the cap sunsets. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that's an "arbitrary number."

In January, LePage said legislation would be forthcoming to remove that cap. He has criticized the Maine Charter School Commission for failing to approve several charter school applications.

MacDonald, the Boothbay legislator, said there's no proof that charter schools are better than public schools. In her statement, Kilby-Chesley, the teachers union official, said, "We can't continue to allow more schools, with unproven educational success, to open if they are going to take money away from our public schools which the majority of students attend."

Bennett, however, said the two operating charter schools -- both in Somerset County -- already have produced "very positive results," and the administration doesn't want to preclude groups from submitting charter-school applications.

"We have a very large state," she said. "If you open that door, you open up more opportunities for students to have that accessibility of a charter school being closer to them."

In 2012, a similar LePage plan to send some public funds to religious schools drew little support in a Republican-led Legislature. It received only three votes in the Education Committee, one of which was cast by Mason, the new bill's sponsor.

The 2012 legislation was trounced on the floor of the full Legislature as well, receiving only eight votes in the Senate and 59 in the House, with then-Senate President Kevin Raye and then-House Speaker Robert Nutting voting against it.

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