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Bill to allow public funds for religious schools rejected, school choice put on hold

Posted March 22, 2012, at 5:56 p.m.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee on Thursday effectively rejected a proposal to allow public funding for private religious schools and also deferred action on a school choice bill pushed by the LePage administration.

In a 10-2 vote, the Education Committee recommended that the full Legislature reject LD 1866, which would remove one sentence from state law that says public dollars cannot be used to fund religious schools. Any student now can attend a religious school, but they must pay tuition.

That bill still goes to the House and Senate, but without committee support, it’s unlikely to pass.

The other bill, LD 1854, sought to create an open enrollment system that would allow schools to become “schools of choice” and accept students from outside their districts. Students and families could enroll their students in these schools of choice without needing permission from the district in which they reside and the local taxpayers dollars would go with them.

Rather than pass that bill, which drew significant opposition at a public hearing last week, the Education Committee proposed creating a group that would study the idea and bring back recommendations to the next Legislature.

“The biggest issue about this whole idea of school choice has boiled down to dollars. It got away from what’s best for kids,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, co-chairman of the Education Committee. “If we had this [bill] in January, the committee could have probably done something, but we got it so late and had a lot of unanswered questions.

“There was a lot of support for choice on committee, but we wanted to do a good job with it.”

Democrats on the committee said they were pleased that the LePage administration’s education proposals were not rammed through.

“I think what the committee’s vote today showcased was a rejection of the governor’s extreme education proposals,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “The committee agreed that he put forth complex public policy and we didn’t have time to vet it. We felt it was more appropriate to go after the data and facts we need in order to do better work next session.”

The school choice bill drew criticism late last week, including from many students.

“Instead of focusing on allowing people to choose one school they like over another, we should make sure that every school is good and has the funding it needs to provide students with a quality education,” said Nash Roy, a senior at Hermon High School.

The Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union, also opposed the measure because it feared it would harm small, rural school districts.

“Maine already has a school choice law,” MEA President Chris Galgay said. “Parents can go and request a child attend another public school in the state, and if the superintendent does not agree, the parents can appeal to the commissioner.”

Galgay said the law is working well and suggested that it be more broadly advertised.

Others supported the school choice initiative. Jennifer Murray from East Millinocket and her daughter Emma supported the legislation. Murray said she home-schools her daughter because the local school is not providing her the education she needs.

“School choice would force schools to compete,” the elder Murray said, “and those that can’t close, [and] maybe they should.”

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said he preferred the Legislature would have acted this year.

“Maine families are looking for freedom to make the best choices for their kids,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Still, I’m encouraged that the committee members recognize the need for us to take action to give all Maine families the same choices that some already have.”

Regarding LD 1866, Maine Attorney General William Schneider issued an opinion that he didn’t think allowing public funds to go to private religious schools violates the Constitution.

That did little to persuade Education Committee members to support the controversial measure. Only Reps. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, and Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, voted in favor.

“I expect people to vote their conscience on this when this goes the House and Senate floor,” Langley said. “I can’t predict the outcome.”

Alfond, however, said Thursday’s committee vote affirms past votes that have rejected the idea of using public education dollars to fund religious schools.

Thursday’s committee votes were the latest action this week on the governor’s education bills.

When Gov. Paul LePage outlined his education package early last month, he said his intent was to make sure “each student gets the education that he or she wants, not superintendents or schools telling them what they need to study.”

But three of the four bills have been either rejected or significantly altered.

On Wednesday, the Education Committee approved an amended version of a bill that would create a uniform teacher evaluation system in Maine. The amendment added language that allows due process in the event a teacher is given poor reviews and terminated.

On Monday, lawmakers approved LD 1865, a bill that enhances career and technical education.

Both of those bills will go to the House and Senate.

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