April 21, 2019
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Bill to simplify funding of Maine charter schools backed by education committee

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rep. Brian Hubbell

BANGOR, Maine — The Maine State Legislature will consider a bill to simplify the way charter schools are funded.

The Legislature’s education committee backed LD 131, An Act to Amend the Laws Related to Public Funding of Charter Schools, with an “ought to pass” vote on Tuesday.

Under current law, the local and state shares of charter school tuition follow the student. When a student living in a certain school district decides to attend a charter school, that school district is billed for the tuition of the student and has to send a check to the charter school. The result is a lot of bookkeeping work and confusion for both the charter school and the sending district, as well as the state.

Under the proposed bill, the state would directly fund charter schools based on their enrollment, rather than funding school districts for those students so those districts can turn around and pay the charter schools.

“If the state is going to authorize charter schools, then the state as a whole needs to bear the liability for the cost of charter school operations,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, the bill’s sponsor, in his testimony to the education committee.

State education officials, school district administrators and charter school leadership each have expressed support for this change in funding structure.

Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said the change would reduce confusion in business offices across the state and prevent school districts from having to confirm that a student who left to enroll in a charter did, in fact, become a student there. She said it would be “better for the district and, in the long run, better for the state.”

Bangor had five students enrolled in charter schools, but Webb said “several” have since returned.

The change would mean that taxpayers in districts that send students to charter schools have no say in the education of those students, Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said in her testimony.

While the Maine Association for Charter Schools and Charter School Commission say they’re supportive of the concept behind the bill, LD 131 also contains some provisions that prompted the groups to oppose the bill, according to testimony submitted to the education committee.

The bill contains several provisions aimed at boosting transparency and oversight of charter schools. One, a moratorium, would bar the state from approving or executing a contract with a new charter school for one year after the law’s passage. Another requires charter schools to send reports submitted by the charter schools to the Department of Education to the Legislature as well. The Maine Charter School Commission points out in its testimony that these documents already are public.

The bill’s creator said he hopes the law change will put to rest the spats among the charters, school districts and state officials over how charter school funding is handled and how it affects local budgets.

Brown cites the example of Skowhegan-area SAD 54, which lost an estimated $1 million in state and local aid to charter schools. More than 100 other school districts are sending tuition for more than 850 students to six charter schools across the state, with another virtual charter school expected to open in the fall.

“For nearly four years now, public schools and charter schools have been pitted unfortunately against each other in competition for increasingly strained local resources,” Hubbell said. “As a result, mutual fear has inflamed suspicion about the intentions and motivations in the opposite camps in any discussion about different funding models. This bill can defuse that.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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