AUGUSTA — The LePage administration is proposing a $530,000 school voucher program for low-income students to pay some of the transportation, tuition and residential costs of a non-religious private school or a public school in another district.

The program was included in the materials that DOE officials distributed Monday at a briefing for the Legislature’s Education Committee on education spending in the governor’s proposed $6.2 billion for the next biennium. The program was not discussed during the committee briefing, and it was unclear how the department would allocate the funds.

A DOE spokesman, David Connerty-Marin, said no one from the department would be available for comment on the proposal. But some legislators voiced immediate concerns.

“This is a vehicle to implement a voucher program without having an earnest conversation about it,” said Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, who blasted the proposal and said it should have been introduced as its own bill, not included in LePage’s proposed budget.

The costs would be paid from the Choice and Opportunity Fund, an existing $530,000 fund that had been previously earmarked for a school that is now one of the state’s first charter schools, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

It would apply to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch under federal law, which in Maine is 44 percent of all students, or 84,000 students out of 189,000.

The head of the state teachers union questioned whether it was the best use of scarce funds for education.

“There isn’t money for the day-to-day costs of school. There isn’t money for retirement costs. But there is money for new programs that someone has decided take precedence,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Educators Association, which represents teachers. “These are pet projects. … The money is just being shifted around.”

According to the budget proposal, the commissioner “may” reimburse low-income families for:

• Some portion of transportation costs for students transferred from one school district to another. Currently those transfers must be approved through superintendent agreements or by the state education commissioner.

• The tuition and transportation costs to attend an approved private school or public school outside the student’s district. This would include town academies such as Thornton Academy or private schools like Waynflete School in Portland, for example, but not religious schools.

• Cost of residential services at a residential public charter school. The only residential charter school in the state is the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield.

Daughtry said financing is a concern, too.

“We have to be very careful where we allocate our funds right now,” Daughtry said.

Too often, she said, each legislative session brings lots of ideas that she described as “bright shiny toys” — new educational initiatives that are exciting, but lack funding or take money away from bread-and-butter needs at the district level.

Her Republican colleague, Michael McClellan, of Raymond, agreed. He said he supports voucher programs, but there are budgetary concerns.

“You have to really think about it,” McClellan said, noting that his district already has school choice and would pay tuition at other schools. “The problem is, we have got great public schools, but we legislators keep piling on (new mandates).”

There are 12 states plus the District of Columbia with school voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, four states plus D.C. offer them to low-income students or students from failing schools.

In 1989, the Wisconsin legislature passed the nation’s first modern school voucher program. In 2011, Indiana created the nation’s first statewide school voucher program for low-income students.
Under current Maine law, a school district that doesn’t have its own schools, or a contract with a nearby district, already pays the tuition for students to attend a public or approved private school. It was unclear Monday if the proposed fund could offset those local costs.

Other lawmakers agreed they needed to discuss the issue.

“For years I’ve strongly opposed vouchers. I think it weakens the commitment to our public schools,” said Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor. “At what point are you actually signaling a lack of support for public education?”