Communities have faced funding challenges in recent years as costs rise and state support at all levels shrink. Our local communities have been forced to make hard decisions. Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in local school budgets. The difficult situations faced by many school districts in Maine have been exacerbated by the unforeseen impact that public charter schools have had on certain regions across our state – especially on the Skowhegan area now and certainly on schools in greater Portland next year.
Currently, locally raised property taxes, as well as state education dollars, are used to pay for students who choose to attend a charter school outside of their district. Local taxpayers who provide substantial funding to support the education of these students have no voice regarding charter school curriculum, instruction, policies, salaries or class sizes. The amount of money that leaves school districts in this manner is considerable for some districts. In School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan, for example, $400,000 in funds left the school district to support students who attend two charter schools in the area.
Next year, the district says it will lose in excess of $660,000 to charter schools. Other school districts in central Maine, such as SAD 49 in Fairfield, have been required to send lower amounts of local tax dollars and state allocations to charter schools for a handful of students who attend charter schools. The impact of having even small numbers of students leave for charter schools is evident both financially as well as programmatically.
Proposed legislation I submitted this session, LD 1057, An Act to Further Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership, changes the current funding arrangement for public charter schools and is currently awaiting funding on the special appropriations table. The bill proposes that the Maine Department of Education establish a new budget program account for funding the operation of public charter schools. The logic of the bill is simple: Given the state’s policy to support alternative educational institutions, the state must provide adequate support for them. Charter schools may prove a valued component of our state’s education infrastructure, but they should not be funded at the expense of a handful of communities across our state.
Rather than undermining charter schools, this legislation creates a new mechanism for their funding. Moreover it does so without negatively affecting public schools. Legislative colleagues from both sides of the aisle on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee agreed that local districts should not have the sole burden of funding charter schools.
Besides ensuring proper state support for charter schools, LD 1057 also requires that a charter school receive the same amount of funding per student that the local school district would have received had the student remained in attendance at the local school. It also clarifies responsibility for the transportation costs for a student who attends a public charter school.
The proposals in LD 1057 are reasonable. Moreover, they provide equity both to local communities as well as to charter schools. I urge my colleagues and Gov. Paul LePage to support both Maine’s public schools and Maine’s public charter schools by allowing this critical legislation to pass.
Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, is a first-term legislator and represents Fairfield, Rome and Smithfield. She is also a lifelong Maine educator. She has worked as a classroom teacher, special education teacher and special education administrator and holds a doctorate in education from the University of Maine.