AUGUSTA, Maine — A Democratic legislator wants to ensure that future mid-year cuts to education are applied evenly to all schools receiving public funds, whether they’re traditional public schools, charter schools or private academies that enroll public-school students.
Rep. Karen Kusiak’s bill, LD 194, comes amid a contentious debate among legislative Democrats and Republicans over whether the state’s two newly opened charter schools should share in the $12.6 million education funding cut included in Gov. Paul LePage’s recent order to curtail state spending to keep pace with falling state revenues.
The Democratic majority on the Legislature’s Education Committee voted last week to include charter schools in the $12.6 million cut after the LePage administration applied the funding cut only to traditional public schools.
“I’d like to have assurance that when there are curtailments, other publicly funded schools have to participate also,” said Kusiak, a first-term lawmaker from Fairfield. “I see it as a matter of equity for schools, taxpayers.”
Kusiak’s bill wouldn’t affect this year’s curtailment, which lawmakers will consider in the coming days as part of LePage’s supplemental budget proposal. The bill is a concept draft, so it lists a goal but doesn’t lay out a specific mechanism for including all types of schools in future cuts.
“We’re looking ahead certainly,” Kusiak said. “It is a matter of principle. As charter schools grow, this may affect school districts more.”
Democrats — along with representatives from the Maine Education Association and groups representing school boards and superintendents — started questioning why the LePage administration spared the state’s two charter schools from the $12.6 million curtailment as soon as administration officials began presenting the cuts to lawmakers.
The Republican-controlled 125th Legislature passed a charter school bill in 2011, making Maine the 41st state to allow the independently run, public schools of choice.
The state’s first two charter schools — Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley — opened in fall 2012, and they enroll 106 students, according to the Maine Department of Education. Fifty of those students come from one district, School Administrative District 54 in the Skowhegan area.
Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett told lawmakers on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee in January that curtailing small budget items like charter schools was “more trouble than it’s worth.”
The school districts in which the students reside pay tuition to the charter schools for each student who attends. If the Education Committee’s recent vote stands, the home school districts would withhold a portion of their charter school payments, which they’re not currently allowed to do under the charter school law.
“If my six towns receive less subsidy, then it seems reasonable those cuts should flow through to the charters,” Brent Colbry, SAD 54’s superintendent, said in January.
But the LePage administration and legislative Republicans have accused Democrats on the Education Committee of singling out charter schools, which Democrats largely oppose.
“This isn’t about fairness,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who sponsored the 2011 charter school legislation. “This is about attacking 106 charter school students and trying to shut down their opportunity. People who are about students, rather than a system, need to be wary about what the Democrats are very openly trying to do.”
Mason and other Republicans point out that the committee didn’t vote to apply the same cuts to private town academies, which effectively serve as public high schools in some areas, and other schools that receive public funds. Democrats on the committee did note, however, that town academies will feel some impact from the cuts in future years based on the formula school districts use to calculate their payments to them.
Mason said he’s opposed to Kusiak’s bill because the authority to order a spending curtailment lies with the governor. “I don’t think that we should be putting forward a bill that tells the governor in his separate branch of government how to operate what’s under his purview,” he said.
He also sees the bill as another effort to interfere with charter schools’ funding stream. A number of other bills lawmakers will consider this session aim to change how charter schools are funded.
David Connerty-Marin, a Maine Department of Education spokesman, said Kusiak’s proposal was “perfectly reasonable for discussion.”
“When we go through [a curtailment] we generally do make sure that everybody shares a little bit in the pain,” he said, “but at some point when you’re talking about $50 or $60, you start to wonder if it’s worth everyone’s efforts.”
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.