LEPAGE PLAN

February 12, 2012

Public funds possible for religious schools

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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 school districts -- it would call for the Legislature to overturn a state law that bans public funding of religious schools.

While the school-choice proposal would expand access to public funding for secular private schools -- some of which already receive dollars from school districts -- it would call for the Legislature to overturn a 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 under the terms of the proposal.

"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."

The prospect of additional funding is appealing, Dawson said, but he's not sure how it would work, in part because none of the education proposals has been submitted as legislation.

Dawson said his school 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 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."

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at KJonline.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)