AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House on Thursday rejected a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage that would have allowed public education dollars to be used for private religious schools.
In an 84-59 vote without debate, the House accepted the majority “ought not to pass” report that was sent forth last week by the Education Committee. The bill now goes to the Senate.
LD 1866 was the simplest education bill introduced this session, but also one of the most controversial. It sought to repeal the language in state law that says “only nonsectarian private schools may be approved for the receipt of public funds for tuition purposes.”
The bill was one of four pieces of legislation proposed this session by LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen in an effort to further change the state’s education model.
During a public hearing earlier this month, LD 1866 received mixed reviews. Any student now can attend a religious school, but they must pay tuition.
Maine Attorney General William Schneider, who was asked to issue an opinion, said he didn’t think allowing public funds to go to private religious schools would violate the Constitution.
Schneider’s opinion did little to sway the Education Committee, which voted 10-3 against the measure.
All House Democrats who were present on Thursday voted against the bill and were joined by several Republicans. The 59 votes in favor of the bill came from Republicans.
“Today’s vote was a victory for Maine’s public schools and families,” said Rep. Dick Wagner of Lewiston, the Democratic lead on the Education Committee. “Public tax dollars should not be used to send some children to private religious schools.”
Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, was among those who voted in the minority.
“I saw it as another way to give students options,” he said. “Not every public school is right for every student. I was sorry to see this bill defeated.
Three other bills that were part of the governor’s education package still need to be resolved by the Legislature.
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. That means students and families could enroll their students in these schools without needing permission from the district in which they reside and the local taxpayers dollars would go with them.
That bill also drew significant opposition during a public hearing this month and the Education Committee decided it would be best to 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.
Democrats were glad to see the school choice bill put on hold.
“The committee agreed that he put forth complex public policy and we didn’t have time to vet it,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “We felt it was more appropriate to go after the data and facts we need in order to do better work next session.”
The two other bills still await final votes in the House and Senate.
A bill that would create a uniform teacher evaluation system in Maine passed through the Education Committee last week after an amendment was added that ensures due process in the event a teacher is given poor reviews and terminated.
Earlier last week, the committee approved a bill that enhances career and technical education by syncing vocational education schedules with traditional classroom schedules.
Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics