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Bowen argues against ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ for charter schools, but public school officials call current funding system unfair

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage speaks in favor of charter schools during a press conference at the State House on Monday, April 1, 2013.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Monday that he is open to exploring new ways to fund charter schools as long as legislators aren’t intent on a future consisting of “death by 1,000 cuts” for the less than one-year-old system.

Bowen’s comments came during a marathon hearing Monday afternoon in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, in which five bills were presented by Democrats that would alter the funding mechanism for charter schools.

“If the intent of these bills is to eliminate the funding, I ask lawmakers to abandon this ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ approach and simply introduce a bill to repeal the charter school law,” said Bowen. “All these bills are doing is trying to nibble away and imperil funding.”

At least five of more than 30 bills proposed this legislative session on charter schools would make fundamental changes to the way charter schools in Maine are funded. Those from public schools said Maine’s one-year-old law siphons too much away from traditional local schools while charter school supporters argued that they are doing more with less for students who might otherwise not succeed.

“To me, this is not a question about school choice,” said Bruce Beasley, superintendent of Gray-area schools. “It is a question about funding school choice. [Under the current system] districts will either be forced to cut programs or be forced to raise taxes.”

According to the law enacted in 2011, charter schools are funded when a student’s share of taxpayer dollars follows them from their traditional public school to the charter school, but teachers and principals said that has the potential to pull too much money away from public schools.

According to numerous people who came to testify Monday from the Skowhegan area, that scenario is already a reality. Maine’s first two public charter schools, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School in Cornville, are each just a few miles from Skowhegan. RSU 54, which includes Skowhegan-area schools, saw about $455,000 of its revenue, along with about 50 students, go to the two charter schools this year and according to Superintendent Brent Colbry, that number could top $600,000 next year.

“The revenue simply cannot be covered by asking for more taxes from our local taxpayers,” said Colbry. “We do not feel that the current funding system is just, equitable or fair to our district’s communities. That has been the real and painful result of this on RSU 54. Whether it’s one of these solutions or others, there’s a need to find a solution to the funding of charter schools.”

Earlier in the day, Gov. Paul LePage joined parents, students and charter school officials at a midday press conference at the State House in an effort to pre-empt the Education Committee’s hearings.

“It’s about putting kids first,” said LePage. “We can solve the debate about what’s a good education if we all got on the same page about putting kids first. … To the parents who stand up for their children and allow them to go to charter schools, I commend you for identifying what is best for your children.”

Thalia Barden, a student at the Cornville Regional Charter School, called the school a “great place.”

“I do not feel that it is fair to cut funds for our school,” she said. “If you cut our school funds, then the school could not be able to provide such great teachers, programs, field trips and other great learning opportunities for the students of our school. Just in the last seven months, I, as a member of the learning community, have been given so many fantastic experiences and have learned so much.”

Some of the speakers at Monday’s hearing said the funding formula needs to be changed, but not only to ease the pressure on local schools. They contended that the current formula does not adhere to the constitution because it allows un-elected local charter school boards to make decisions about spending taxpayer money.

“It will be challenged in court if it is left unchanged,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents most of the state’s public school teachers.

Among other measures, the bills discussed Monday included various changes to the funding formula and a measure to require a local referendum to approve a charter school.

Some testimony focused on charter school funding laws in the other 40 states that have them, including Massachusetts where traditional public schools lose their money to charter schools gradually. Bowen promised lawmakers that he’d explore some of those other methods and come back to the Education Committee with his preferences.

“I’m happy to look at it if we’re going to continue funding these schools,” he said.

But some, such as Emanuel Pariser, co-director and program developer for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, said there is already an adversarial relationship between some charter schools and the public schools in their neighborhoods.

“It makes me very sad that we don’t fund education like it should be funded,” said Pariser. “It feels like it’s a setup and we’re fighting over two little scraps of meat that have been thrown on the table. Whomever is more aggressive gets it.”

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