We try to teach our children to be fair and kind from an early age. My preschool-age son talks about such lessons each day. My first-grade daughter recently brought home a kindness award for her willingness to help others without being asked.
So why is it that the Legislature has created a system that creates winners and losers when it comes to funding charter schools? Even as we strive to provide the best possible learning environments for Maine students, we seem to forget these early lessons that our children embrace so easily and wholeheartedly.
Under the current funding system, charter schools siphon money from the public schools from whence they draw their students. It’s a situation that unnecessarily pits these schools against one another and polarizes the issue of charter schools.
Several measures before the Legislature seek to repair these problems. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has acknowledged there’s a problem with a funding mechanism that puts schools in competition for students and scarce funding.
The school district for my area, Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, is the first to feel the impact of Maine’s fledgling venture with charter schools.
Skowhegan is located between Maine’s first two charter schools: Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley. The first was organized by community members after the district closed Cornville Elementary School as a cost-saving measure. The second, a high school focused on sustainability, agriculture and related areas, took root at Good Will-Hinckley, as the institution was nearly shuttered after serving youth since its founding in 1889.
Both charter school efforts have been labors of love and still face challenges. Unfortunately, their emergence has come at the expense of RSU 54 because of the funding method. Because state funding follows the student to the charter school, the school district expects to lose more than $400,000 to the charters this year and in excess of $600,000 next year.
Superintendent Brent Colbry has told lawmakers that these losses will mean cuts to the teaching staff and other personnel, support services, programs including summer school, textbooks and other essential items. The district’s proposed budget cuts 11 teachers, a school nurse and a counselor. At the same time, the loss of each student does not result in reduced costs for expenses such as buses, heating oil or facilities maintenance.
RSU 54 already is grappling with how to provide our kids a good education as resources become increasingly scarce. It’s a situation that other communities will have to face as additional charter schools open.
The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, set to open in Portland in September, expects to bring in $1.4 million from neighboring school districts in its first year. That figure would rise if the school expands in accordance with its plans.
Two other charter schools, in Gray and Harpswell, have won approval from the Maine Charter School Commission. Current law allows up to 10 charter schools in the state.
The loss of funding will reduce opportunities for public school students. The current method makes funding of charter schools a political flashpoint that will require regular fights before the Legislature, a situation that keeps them in precarious positions and makes it difficult for them to deal with any capital expenses.
This siphoning of funds from public schools comes at a difficult time. A curtailment order hit school districts earlier this year and Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed two-year budget reduces state aid to local communities while making school districts responsible for teacher retirement costs. This tax shift to communities will lead to property tax increases as well as diminished services.
As a parent and a lawmaker, I say we must do better. Our public schools are working hard for students, pursuing innovation in areas such as core curriculum and standards-based learning and serving as important engines for the prosperity of our children and our state. Let’s not hinder their efforts by pulling the rug out from under them.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the father of a public school student in RSU 54, where his wife is a teacher.