Bill aims to cover charter school costs

BAR HARBOR — A legislative proposal submitted by Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) seeks to spread the burden of paying for Maine’s growing number of charter schools to all residents of the state.

“An Act Regarding Charter School Funding,” has been referred to the Legislature’s Education Committee, of which Hubbell is a member. Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) is a co-sponsor.

The act seeks to change the way charter schools are funded. Currently, the home districts of charter school students are responsible for paying the bulk of tuition, with the state offering a portion of the money that would have otherwise gone to the home district. This setup has a growing number of districts encountering budget issues in the fall and winter, long after the year’s budget had been set in the previous spring.

Hubbell’s proposed change to the charter school laws would instead have charter schools funded fully by state general purpose aid, leaving local school districts off the hook if one or more of their students decide to attend. With the funding spread out over the entire state budget, Hubbell said, the impact on Maine residents, and property tax bills, would be minimal.

The bill also would require that charter school funding gain its own line in the state budget, and that charter school funding information be posted online in order that Maine residents may track how much is being spent.

Hubbell said he wanted to make clear that he is not in any way attempting to lower charter school funding or make a political statement about the value of such schools, only to bring more fairness to the situation.

“This act is not meant to make charter school funding more vulnerable, just more transparent. And in a way that does not subject local taxpayers to that unpredictable liability,” he said.

Charter schools were first allowed by law in Maine in the spring of 2011. Up until recently, the number of districts losing students to charter schools was relatively small, and limited by the geographical location of such schools.

However, with the opening this year of Maine Connections Academy, a virtual public charter school, districts around the state are seeing impacts. A total of two Mount Desert Island High School students have enrolled in the academy, with a third expected next year. District officials were expecting to pay over $20,000 in tuition to the academy.

That sum is now expected to zero out, as Governor Paul LePage included language in his budget stating that the state would be funding charter schools completely. Hubbell said, however, that while he supports the Governor’s efforts, the mechanisms are not yet clear. His bill would serve the same purpose, and it has the support of the Governor and from charter school officials, who no longer want to be viewed as siphoning money from local schools, he said.

Hubbell and Langley tried to move similar legislation forward last year, but lack of interest from many areas of the state that had yet to deal with impacts from charter schools presented its passage. However, with the virtual academies now drawing students from all over Maine, he expects the bill to pass this year, he said.

“I am confident we will prevail this time around,” Hubbell said.

Robert Levin

Robert Levin

Former reporter Robert Levin covered the people, businesses, governmental and nonprofit agencies of Bar Harbor. [email protected]

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