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Maine Charter Schools Would Face New Requirements Under Proposed Bills
04/01/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

It's been almost two years since lawmakers in Augusta voted to allow charter schools in Maine, and the debate over their place in the state's public education system shows no signs of easing. Critics of charters, including many Democrats and labor unions, say they siphon critical education dollars away from local public schools at a time when districts in Maine are struggling to begin with. At a public hearing today, the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee heard testiomy on bills that would cut the amount of money a local district must contribute when one of its students decides to attend a charter. Charter supporters, though, say such changes would hurt these more autonomous public schools before they have a chance to get off the ground. Jay Field reports.

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Jessica Daigneault, a dental hygenist who lives in Cornville, says the local school district - SAD 54 - has been good to her family. Her husband David, a Skowhegan cop, works as a school resouce officer in the district. Her oldest son has thrived in district schools. But SAD 54 hasn't been the best match for Daigneault's other son.

"My second one needs something more," she told lawmakers. "He does not qualify for any disabilities or anything else like that. But this has given him the opportunity to really achieve and to make something of himself."

"This" is the Cornville Regional Charter School. Daigneault was part of the team that helped launch Maine's first charter elementary school and serves on its board. She traveled to Augusta to talk about her family's experience, as lawmakers weigh whether to change how the state funds charters.

Olivia Broderick testified after Daigneault. Broderick was thriving at York High School, achieving high honors in advanced courses, when she found out about another new charter, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. She quickly enrolled at the school for her senior year.

"This school was something that inspired me," she said. "Going into something where you can choose what you want to learn about, and how you want to learn, and what you learn best doing, is something I didn't know existed. And being there and living it and doing it was just so - mind blowing."

"To benefit 50 students going to the Cornville charter schools and the Hinckley schools - 2,600 other students - they're going to be losing staff from Kindergarten to 12th grade," said Jennifer Porier.

It's a trade off, Porier told lawmakers, that the state shouldn't stand for. Porier is a parent and school board member in SAD 54. If a student decides to attend a charter school, Maine law calls for the local district to send the money it would spend on the child's education to the charter. Currently, half of a student's per-pupil allocation comes from the state. The other half comes from local property taxes.

One bill before the Legislature's Educaiton Committee would change state law to prevent charters from collecting any local property tax revenue. It's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Bruce MacDonald, of Boothbay, notes that Maine voters passed a referendum nine years ago, calling on the state to pay 55 percent of the money needed to fund public schools.

"At this time, when we have not reached that 55 percent goal, why are we asking, or requiring, existing public schools to send money to charter schools, when we need to be shoring up the funding for the existing schools, not chipping away at it.?" he said.

SAD 54, which is near both the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and Cornville Regional Charter School, is expected to lose $1 million in funding over the next two years. The district has already lost more than a $179,000 as part of the December curtailment, and funding is scheduled to be flat over the next two-year budget cycle.

"I don't question, for one minute, the impact charter schools have had with some students," said Jeremy Lehan, who teaches English at Skowhegan Area High School. Lehan says his district simply can't afford them right now, if it means having to cut jobs and programs at regular public schools.

Charter supporters, though, are vowing to fight for the funding that the schools are entitled to under Maine law, and they have a powerful ally in this battle: Gov. Paul LePage has signaled that he'll to whatever it takes to protect their position in Maine's public education mix.


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