AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage unveiled two new education proposals Thursday that are sure to stir controversy in the final weeks of the legislative session.
One new proposal by LePage would lift the cap on the number of public charter schools allowed in Maine, make it easier for economically disadvantaged students to transfer to other schools and allow public money to flow to religious schools.
A second LePage proposal would push the cost of remedial courses needed by higher-education students at public institutions to their home school districts.
Both proposals come a day after a LePage spokeswoman and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told reporters that no major new education proposals were expected from the governor prior to the end of the legislative session next month. The Maine Education Association and the Maine School Management Association assailed both bills as what they called more attacks on public education.
“This is proof the governor will go to great lengths to cause even more harm to our schools,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association.
LD 1529, An Act to Expand School Choice for Maine Students, which was printed Thursday, would advance school choice options for Maine students, furthering a long-held goal of the LePage administration that is roundly opposed by educators, teachers unions and Democrats in the Legislature. Sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the bill would allow colleges and universities to authorize public charter schools and remove the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the Maine Public Charter School Commission.
In current law, the commission is limited to approving 10 schools within 10 years and local school districts can create as many charter schools as they want. Allowing colleges and universities that authority would be new. Two public charter schools opened last fall and three are slated to open for the next school year.
LD 1529 also includes provisions to help economically disadvantaged students gain greater school choice by providing funding for tuition and transportation to public and private schools, as well as room and board at charter schools. It also allows public funding to flow to private sectarian schools as long as they comply with standards applicable to other private schools.
Kilby-Chesley said this proposal should be “dead in the water.”
“This is part of the relentless campaign of the governor to drain funds from our schools,” she said. “This is nothing more than a political maneuver which does nothing to help our students succeed.”
The LePage administration said in January that it was preparing legislation to lift the cap on charter schools, but LePage told the Bangor Daily News in March that if the parents and students of Maine want school choice, “they’re going to have to demand it.” The Legislature rejected a school choice proposal from the administration last year.
“We have superintendent agreements through which parents can choose the local public school or a nearby public school with permission between superintendents,” said Kilby-Chesley. “The issue is not whether parents have choices. It’s about who pays for their choices.”
A second bill printed Thursday, LD 1524, An Act to Address the Burden Placed on Students as a Result of Requirements to Take Remedial Courses, is sponsored by Rep. David Cotta, R-China. The bill’s concept follows on comments from LePage during his State of the State Address in February.
The University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy are already required to track the number of remedial courses needed by students from each school district in Maine around the subjects of language arts and mathematics. LePage’s bill would require the Department of Education to reduce each school district’s subsidy by the cost of the remedial courses and pay those funds to the higher education institution. Those institutions, in turn, would be required to use those funds to reduce or eliminate the cost of remedial courses for all students.
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the proposal does nothing to solve what is a real problem in the public school system. She said taking money away from schools whose students need remedial work in college removes resources that the schools need to improve.
“It would become a vicious cycle,” said Brown. “It’s clear to me that this will be another punitive measure against schools.”
Kilby-Chesley said a recent spike in higher education students needing remedial work might have been caused by more students being accepted into Maine’s expanding community college system.
“To shift these costs to the high schools from which a student graduates is not the solution,” she said. “Raising the standards for admission to assure that those entering will be successful seems to be a better solution.”
Both bills were referred to the Legislature’s Education Committee on Thursday.