Senate joins House in rejection of religious school funding bill

Posted March 30, 2012, at 1:54 p.m.
Garrett Mason
Maine.gov photo
Garrett Mason

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Friday confirmed a House vote rejecting a bill that would have allowed public funds to be used for private religious schools.

The 24-8 Senate vote on LD 1866 — one of four education bills proposed by Gov. Paul LePage — followed brief debate. The House without debate voted 84-59 on Thursday to defeat the measure.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, was one of only three members of the Education Committee who supported the bill, which would have eliminated one line in state statute that says “only nonsectarian private schools may be approved for the receipt of public funds for tuition purposes.”

Mason said he thinks there are students who are not getting the most of public education and they might benefit from a private religious school. Any student now can attend a religious school, but they must pay tuition. Some families can’t afford to.

Others said the bill would have created a “voucher” program that sets a bad precedent.

“Siphoning taxpayer money to pay for religious education undercuts Maine’s public education,” said Assistant Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, who also serves on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “Schools are already being asked to do more with less and taking money away from our public schools will result in cutting programs and lost opportunities for our students.”

Concerns about the constitutionality of the proposed measure remain. Attorney General William Schneider told the Education Committee that he didn’t think the bill would violate the state Constitution.

Alfond, though, said there have been four cases in the last three decades where the Maine Supreme Court has ruled that using public money to fund religious schools is not consistent with state law.

LD 1866 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.

LD 1854 was designed 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.

The Education Committee decided to study the idea and bring back recommendations to the next Legislature. It could still be passed when it goes to the floor. LePage has strongly advocated for improving school choice and could lean on Republican lawmakers.

Another 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.

The governor’s final education bill enhances career and technical education by syncing vocational education schedules with traditional classroom schedules.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics

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