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Maine School Choice Bill Runs into Opposition from Education Leaders
05/17/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

After opening the doors for a limited number of charter schools two years ago, the LePage administration now wants to remove the cap and push the public discussion about school choice into uncharted waters. During a public hearing on the measure, the administration also argued in favor of requiring local school districts to pay the educational costs for students enrolled in religious schools. A.J. Higgins has more.

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According to Gov. LePage, if Maine students are really going to get a fair shot at attending the schools of their choice, then they will need more options than the 10 regional charter schools currently authorized by the Legislature. His answer is to allow Maine colleges and universities to authorize charter schools.

State Education Commissioner Steve Bowen says those kinds of partnerships would help the state learn more about the best practices that could be adopted by other institutions to raise student achievement and provide kids with broader educational opportunities.

"We believe that by harnessing the policy area expertise and research capacities available at our colleges and universities, we can provide students with a different kind of charter school that might have been developed otherwise," said Bowen.

Speaking to members of the Legislature's Education Committee, Bowen says the state is already half-way towards meeting the charter school limit. Removing the cap, he says, will alleviate anxiety among potential charter school operators who are interested in initiating what is a two-to-three-year process. By then, says Bowen, the opportunity might be lost as other charter schools get in lnie ahead of them.

But expanding the number of schools isn't the only change that Bowen would like make in the area of school choice.

"The third provision of the bill eliminates the existing statutory prohibition against the use of public tuition dollars for Maine's religious schools," Bowen said. "We've put this language forward because we believe that this prohibition discriminates against an entire class of schools for reasons other than academic excellence, and denies students the opportunity to attend such schools - some students, I should say, the opportunity to attend such schools - at public expense. As we move toward a more student-centered model of education, it makes sense we feel to make available to students an educational setting in which they will have the most success, and for many students that might be a religious school."

And Bowen's not alone when it comes to advocating that public tax dollars should be spent on private religious schools.

"We believe that any movement towards school choice for parents would be a benefit to the families we represent," said Carroll Conley, the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

And Conley says he's heard the same criticisms lodged against taxpayer funding of religious schools that are also used against charter schools: Both siphon off scarce funding for public schools by reducing the student population. The only problem with that argument, Conley says, is that it's just not true.

"The threat of a mass exodus from public schools to private schools is often raised during these issues," Conley said. "However the research empirically reveals that just does not happen. Regardless of urban or rural states, again and again, the numbers are at most four to six percent, and drastically less than that -- especially in the state of Maine, where choice exists."

But Maine's education leaders are challenging the benefits of the administration's bill, and its impact on public education. Connie Brown is executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

"There are no definitive studies that show charters and school choice improves student outcomes," she said. "Taking more money away from struggling schools makes no sense, yet that's exactly what this bill would do."

Dick Durost of the Maine Principals Association says the school choice bill would leave school administrators with less money to pay the same bills. "It's still a loss of money, and I have to provide, as a school system, all of the same services," Durost said.

Lawmakers on the panel are expected to review the bill further next week.


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