Republicans and Democrats unite against LePage’s education plans

Posted May 23, 2013, at 6:35 p.m.
Last modified May 24, 2013, at 8:50 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s latest attempts to broaden school choice and lift a cap on charter schools failed to gain much support at the Legislature’s committee level Thursday.

The Education Committee voted strongly against two 11th-hour education proposals that, among other things, would have lifted the cap on charter schools, allowed public money to flow to religious schools and required high schools to pay for remedial courses needed by their graduates in college.

The bills, which LePage submitted just two weeks ago, included several initiatives that LePage has proposed or talked about in the past, including his long-held goal of expanding school choice.

LD 1529, An Act to Expand School Choice for Maine Students, would have allowed colleges and universities to authorize public charter schools and remove the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the Maine Public Charter School Commission. In current law, the commission is limited to approving 10 schools within 10 years and local districts can create as many charter schools as they want. Maine’s first two public charter schools opened last fall and three more are slated to debut during the next school year.

LD 1529 would have given more school choice to economically disadvantaged students by allowing them to transfer to the school of their choice and have all expenses paid by their former schools. It also would have allowed public funding for private sectarian schools as long as they complied with standards applicable to other private schools.

Republicans and Democrats on the committee resisted the proposals.

Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, said she has long been against public funding for religious schools.

“I believe there is indeed a bright line in our constitution and in our country,” she said. “I agree that the religious schools do a great job of educating kids, but the public schools are the ones that should be funded with public tax dollars.”

Although Nelson was one of a minority of Democrats who voted in favor of charter schools in 2011, she said 10 charter schools in 10 years is enough. Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram, agreed.

“I voted for 10 charter schools in 10 years to give them a chance,” said Rankin. “They need to prove themselves.

The only votes in favor of the bill came from Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, and Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond.

“I firmly believe in choice,” said Johnson. “I wish everybody had choice.”

LD 1529 now moves to the full Legislature with an 11-2 “ought not to pass” recommendation.

The committee unanimously rejected another LePage proposal, LD 1524, An Act to Address the Burden Placed on Students as a Result of Requirements to Take Remedial Courses.

The bill would have required the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy to track the number of remedial courses needed by students from schools in Maine in math and language arts. That data would have led to the Department of Education reducing each sending school’s state funding in order to pay for the remedial courses.

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