Battle over Maine charter schools smoldering

By Robert Long, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 07, 2013, at 4:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine public school administrators lodged a new complaint Monday about the state’s two new charter schools: They won’t feel any impact of $12.6 million in education aid cuts Gov. Paul LePage ordered late last month to close a $35.5 million hole in the current state budget.

Public school officials say that’s not fair, and it reflects a pattern of inequity that marks the LePage administration’s push for charter schools. Maine Department of Education officials say the fraction of state aid that follows students to charter schools didn’t warrant action as part of this year’s emergency, budget-balancing cuts.

The dispute further fuels a contentious debate between public school officials, generally supported by Democrats, and the Republican governor about funding public education in Maine.

The curtailment fairness questions accompany news that the governor plans to propose legislation that would lift the limit on the number of charter schools in Maine. The law that allowed charter schools to begin operating in Maine in 2012 stipulated that only 10 charter schools could be created within the first decade of the law’s enactment.

The Maine Education Association, the union that represents Maine public school teachers, flunked that proposal as a “shortsighted plan which allows state funding to follow the student to a charter school, operated by a company not held to the same standards as public schools.”

In a release issued Monday, the MEA suggested that an expansion of charter schools could force the closure of small rural Maine schools and approached “taxation without representation,” according to MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley, because boards that oversee charter schools are not “democratically elected.”

As a new Legislature, led by Democrats who reclaimed majorities in both chambers after two years of GOP control, convenes Tuesday, charter schools likely will return as a flashpoint in the ideological wrangling over how to get the best return on public education spending.

Democrats question the fairness of shifting public K-12 education dollars to charter schools, arguing it strips public schools of resources they need to meet rising educational demands. The LePage administration counters that charter schools create healthy competition, which better serves students.

Under a GOP-sponsored 2011 law that made Maine the 41st state to allow publicly funded charter schools, local districts pay tuition for students who live in their jurisdiction to attend a charter school of their choice. State education aid and school funding raised locally pay that tuition, which this year is roughly $9,000 per student, according to the Maine School Management Association. As school administrators scramble to cope with new projected state aid cuts for the fiscal year that ends June 30, some bristle because Maine’s first two charter schools won’t lose state funding.

“The state says charter schools are public schools, but they don’t live by the same rules,” Maine School Board Association President Kristin Malin of Georgetown said in a release Monday. “This is just the latest example of that. When every public school district in the state has to cut back under the curtailment order, charter schools have been automatically exempt. How is that fair?”

State Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, first raised the issue Friday in a question to Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier during an Appropriations Committee meeting on the governor’s curtailment order. The Legislature can alter the temporary cuts included in LePage’s curtailment order as part of a supplemental budget required to balance the current state budget.

“What was the policy decision made to kind of hold [charter school] students harmless from this cut?” Carey asked. Rier replied that the timing of quarterly payments to charter schools and the small number of students — roughly 85 in all — who attend the state’s two charter schools, Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, led Maine Department of Education officials not to target those schools for aid cuts as part of the curtailment.

The proposed state education aid cuts to local school districts under LePage’s curtailment order also don’t affect funding for about 5,000 students who attend private academies with tuition paid by local school districts.

“It’s important to see that the impact of this curtailment is 0.6 percent,” Rier said Monday. “If you applied a similar percentage to charter schools, it would have been roughly $50 out $9,000.”

The bulk of that impact will be felt by School Administrative District 54 in the Skowhegan area, which sends 42 students to the charter school in Cornville and eight to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. For a school district that had to find more than $400,000 to pay charter school tuition after it had passed its 2012-13 budget, the curtailment exemption for charter schools simply adds to the inequity of the charter school law, SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said.

“It’s a fairness issue for me at this point,” Colbry said. “All our kids are going to feel this, and to isolate charters just doesn’t seem right. If my six towns receive less subsidy, then it seems reasonable those cuts should flow through to the charters.”

SAD 54 already had reduced spending on staff development, field trips, book purchases and other expenses to come up with money in this year’s budget for charter school tuition. Finding an additional $180,000 in response to the curtailment order exacerbates the district’s immediate financial dilemma, Colbry said, but that pales in comparison to a larger problem he believes the possible expansion of charter schools in Maine will pose.

“We lose 50 kids, but the costs to the local district do not change,” Colbry said, citing transportation and curriculum as two areas where funding must be maintained. “That money has to come out of kids’ programs or new taxes or a combination of both.”

The Maine Charter School Commission, which approved applications for two new charter schools to open this fall in Portland and Gray, is scheduled to meet Tuesday at the Cross Office Building in Augusta to determine whether five other applications, including two virtual charter schools, can move forward.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/01/07/education/battle-over-maine-charter-schools-smouldering/ printed on September 21, 2014