AUGUSTA — Representatives of public schools said Gov. Paul LePage’s proposals to expand school choice would divert millions of dollars from struggling schools and create a two-tiered system of education in Maine.

At a public hearing Thursday, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the two bills would address inequity in the ability of families to choose the best schools for their children, even if those schools are in other communities or provide religious education.

“The school your children attend is determined by lines on a map, many of which, in this state, at least, were drawn centuries ago,” Bowen said in support of L.D. 1854, which would create open enrollment in Maine.

Opponents of the legislation, however, said the two bills use public money to create an education system that would not provide equal opportunity to students with disabilities or those from low-income families.

L.D. 1854, “An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students,” would allow school boards to open their schools to students from other districts without requiring agreements between superintendents for individual students.

For the purposes of state aid to education, students would be counted as residents of the public school district they attend, not the one where they live.

Private schools approved to receive public funding — there are 28 in Maine, including the 10 town academies — also could adopt open enrollment. The resident school district would pay tuition to the private school, up to a state maximum.

Open enrollment schools may limit the number of spaces in specific grades or programs, but they must use a random selection process to fill those spaces, with no regard to academic, athletic or other skill.

Parents are responsible for providing transportation to an open enrollment school unless the school decides to do so.

Several people testifying against the bill said it will harm small and rural schools, especially those near larger schools that can offer a wider range of educational programs.

A group of students who traveled from Hermon High School said they worry for the future of their school if L.D. 1854 passes.

“Instead of allowing students to choose one school over the other, we should make sure every school is good by providing the funding they need,” senior Nash Roy said, “and allow students to receive an education in the community that has raised them.”

Jack Wallace, a retired teacher from Brunswick, pointed to a study of Colorado’s open enrollment system, which found that it may be increasing segregation among social classes and racial groups.

In Colorado, high-income students were most likely to use open enrollment, and to transfer to even higher-income districts, and white students were more likely to transfer from diverse districts to whiter ones.

Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities said the bill “creates a real threat to the rights of students with disabilities” because of apparent gaps in the services that open enrollment schools must provide.

Augusta School Board Chair Susan Campbell, testifying on behalf of the Maine School Boards Association, said open enrollment can create a downward spiral for struggling schools and provide an advantage to schools with more resources.

“They can skim off the highest achievers or the best athletes,” Campbell said. “What they leave behind, however, is a weakened district that may not have the enrollment or financial resources to provide an adequate education.”

Several people at the hearing spoke in favor of competition between schools.

“Competition is not a bad thing,” said Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery, who teaches at Thornton Academy in Saco. “If this lights a fire under some schools to innovate a little more, or whatever, I think that could be a plus.”

Biddeford resident Renee Morin said her son didn’t have any choices when his elementary school did not recognize his giftedness. He dropped out and is now in jail on a drug charge.

“If you are truly a good local school, you will not lose students,” Morin said. “If you don’t like the grocery store, you can go to a different one. If you don’t like a job, you can get a new one. Our children should be able to have the same choices.”

One group that provided testimony in favor of open enrollment, the national school reform organization Students First, said Maine should limit eligibility for private schools to low-income students at low-performing schools and must hold the private schools accountable to the same standards facing public schools.

Religious schools bill

L.D. 1854 could magnify the potential impact of the other bill that was before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Thursday: L.D. 1866, “An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools.”

The “certain schools” are sectarian religious schools, which have been barred from receving public funding since 1981.

By itself, L.D. 1866 would allow students from communities with school choice to attend religious schools, with the state paying at least a portion of the tuition, based on the same rules that govern the 28 nonreligious private schools now approved to receive public funding.

If both laws pass, religious schools could adopt open enrollment and receive public funding for students from any community in the state.

Bowen compared the proposal to the Cleveland voucher system upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The court ruled that the system did not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause because parents could use the vouchers for religious or secular schools.

“In the type of model before you, the government is not establishing anything,” Bowen said. “Parent decides where student goes, and funding follows the student.”

Bowen said he has not asked the Maine attorney general’s office about the constitutionality of the proposal, but the office has not notified him of any problems.

Some legislators and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine questioned whether L.D. 1866 would pass the test set by Zelman.

The Maine bill would not give vouchers to parents, but have public schools pay tuition to religious private schools.

“My understanding of the Zelman case is that there is indeed a material difference in giving the money to parents, or having the school system sending the money to the school,” said Rep. Mary Pennell Nelson, D-Falmouth.

Sister Rosemary Donohue, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools, said the Portland Diocese is not taking a position on L.D. 1866 because there are too many questions about the standards religious schools would have to meet.

The Rev. William Campbell, president of Cheverus High School, said he supports the bill because it would provide “some measure of financial relief” for students who attend religious schools. Leaders at Cheverus, he said, have not decided whether they would participate.

Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, said the bill would benefit families that have higher than average income, especially because there could be a gap of thousands of dollars between a school’s tuition and the maximum provided by the state.

Like L.D. 1854, L.D. 1866 stands to divert money from public schools.

Lovejoy used the example of Cheverus, which has 126 students who live in Portland. City taxpayers pay more than $8,000 per pupil, so L.D. 1866 could transfer more than $1 million to Cheverus just for the students who are already there.

Other opponents of the bill questioned whether religious schools would be able to cherrypick publicly funded students rather than using the random selection process mandated for open enrollment schools.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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