AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposals to expand school choice in Maine were dealt a blow in a legislative committee meeting Thursday.

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee asked the Department of Education to come back to the next Legislature with more information about creating an open enrollment system. Committee members said the bill came up too late in the session to give it thorough consideration.

The committee also voted 10-3 against a bill to allow religious schools to receive public tuition dollars. The bill will proceed to the full Legislature with a recommendation of “ought not to pass.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls; Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville; and Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, voted in favor of the bill on religious schools, L.D. 1866.

“I see this as an element of choice that should be open to anyone that wants to do it, as long as they go to a school that maintains the same standards that we apply to other public schools,” Johnson said.

Religious schools have been barred from receiving public funding since 1981. If L.D. 1866 were to pass, communities with school choice would pay tuition, up to a state-defined maximum, for resident students who attend participating religious schools.

The Department of Education provided a list of 21 religious schools that meet the same standards as nonsectarian private schools approved to receive public tuition dollars. The 21schools are all Christian, and a majority are Catholic.

“The irony of this is as I look at the schools that could take advantage of this, my guess is that most of them won’t want a piece of it, just because it’s going to actually make them dumb themselves down to some degree,” McClellan said.

L.D. 1866 does not require religious schools to accept all publicly funded students it has the space to accommodate, nor would they have to use a lottery to accept students, as is required of public charter schools.

Rep. Mary Pennell Nelson, D-Falmouth, objected to that during a public hearing last week.

“Every student is entitled to a free public education,” she said. “I don’t think you can deny access. If you are a school of choice, you cannot pick and choose which students you allow in.”

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said that if L.D. 1866 passes, the state would have to develop new rules for its implementation, and those could address the admissions process.

Opponents of the bill raised several other objections in the public hearing, including money for public schools being siphoned away and commingling church and state.

Bowen presented a letter from Maine Attorney General William Schneider asserting that L.D. 1866 is similar to a Cleveland, Ohio, voucher program upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

In addition to Ohio, Colorado and Florida also have voucher programs that allow parents to choose religious schools, according to information provided by the Maine Department of Education.

McClellan said he received hundreds of emails for and against the four education reform bills the committee considered this week, and most of the people opposed to L.D. 1866 worried about diverting funds from public schools.

“The comments I’ve gotten haven’t been about the religious piece of it,” he said. “It’s been about the pie, and this is going to dilute the pie, which is a fair argument. I really expected there to be a religious firestorm, and I just haven’t seen that develop at all.”

The potential for schools to lose students, and thus state aid, was also a major concern in the education committee’s discussions of L.D. 1854, which would have allowed school districts and private schools to create open enrollment programs and draw students from elsewhere, with state funding support.

“In theory, I believe in choice,” said Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais. “But in reality, in Washington County it would kill the public schools. We’re not getting enough funds.”

The committee did not vote on the bill. Instead, it voted unanimously to direct the Department of Education to create a stakeholder group that will draw up new legislation, potentially including a pilot program.

The stakeholders group — which will include teachers, administrators and parents — will consider some specific concerns raised by committee members, including the possibility that open enrollment would not serve the needs of special education students or students from low-income families.

The committee also directed the Department of Education to publicize the availability of superintendents’ agreements, which allow individual students to transfer from one school district to another.

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley, D-Ellsworth, noted that at last week’s hearing, an East Millinocket woman who is homeschooling her daughter testified that she had just learned of superintendent’s agreements.

The department also will clarify to school boards that the agreements are up to a superintendent’s discretion, and decisions must be based on the best interests of the student.

“I’ve heard from superintendents that we have school boards that do not support superintendents’ agreements and have instructed their supterintendents not to enter into them,” Bowen said.

According to department figures, 1,591 agreements are in effect this year. There were 1,689 last year and 1,750 in 2009-10.

Parents can appeal denials to the commissioner, and Bowen has overturned 16 of 26 this year.

Bowen said superintendents’ agreements are not an adequate subsitute for open enrollment, which would make it easier for parents to choose the best schools for their children and also reduce the workload of superintendents.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]


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