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Maine Gov Vows to Protect Charter School Funding
02/01/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Gov. Paul LePage says he'll do whatever it takes to ensure that Maine's first two charter schools get the state funding they were promised this year. At a morning event at a Catholic elementary school, LePage expressed dismay at his administration's ongoing fight with Democrats over charter schools. Earlier this week, the Legislature's Education Committee voted, along party lines, to include the charters in more than $12 million in budget cuts to education. Jay Field has more.

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Gov. Paul LePage believes kids in Maine should be able to go to whichever school will give them the best possible education. It could be a regular public school, a charter, a private or a Catholic school. LePage, himself, has a soft spot for parochial schools. He attended them growing up in Lewiston.

Early Friday morning, LePage read a story to kids at St. John's Cathlolic School in Winslow and took their questions. "What's your best accomplishment as governor?" asked one student.

"My best accomplishment as governor is still yet to come. It's improving the school system in our state," he replied. "Every child in Maine deserves to have the same good education that you're all getting."

But LePage's Democratic opponents in Augusta don't share his views on school choice and some other reforms he's pushing. It's a source of frustration for the governor.

LePage believes the teachers union and professional organizations representing school boards and administrators helped Democrats retake control of the Legislature, in exchange for blocking key parts of his agenda, like education reform.

"The lobbyists, the big unions, are doing an awful, awful thing to the future generations of Maine, and they need to look in the mirror," he says.

LePage's emnity for these groups escalated this week, after a party-line vote in the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Democrats decided not to spare the state's first two charter schools - the Cornville Regional Charter School and the Academy of Natural-Science at Good-Will Hinckley - from funding cuts under the governor's $12.6 million dollar budget curtailment.

The schools have a combined enrollment of just over 100 students. Gov. LePage and other supporters say the move won't result in any substantial savings, and is a political stunt intended to undermine charters before they get off the ground in Maine.

"It's just a matter of basic fairness," says Boothbay Democrat Bruce MacDonald, the House chair of the Education Committee. MacDonald denies his party is playing politics with charter schools.

"When there is a curtailment like this, we just felt that it needed to be share equally across the board," he says. "Some of the statements that are out there - that Democrats are out to make charter schools fail - well, we each of us took an individual vote on that committee based, I think, upon our conscience."

Shortly after the vote, the Maine Education Association, the state's teacher's union, sent out a press release, praising the committee for its fairness in including charter schools in the cuts. Lois Kilby-Chesley, the MEA's president, says the union doesn't oppose charter schools.

Kilby-Chesley says it just wants them to abide by all of the same rules that regular public schools have to follow, a position she says the governor doesn't understand. "It's unfortunate that what we have is someone who tries to drive a wedge between the parties and make it a partisan issue," she says.

But the governor says it's Democrats, and the interest groups that support them, who are the ones driving wedges. LePage says charter schools will get the support they're counting on from the state. "They're going to get the money they need if I have to take it out of my own pocket," he says.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents some employees of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.



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