LEWISTON — The School Committee is opposing two of Gov. Paul LePage's controversial education proposals, school choice and allowing taxpayer money to pay for tuition at religious schools.
Public hearings on those bills are being held this week in Augusta.
LePage wants to allow public schools to offer slots to out-of-district students without receiving superintendent approval. That could mean a family in one town could send their child to a school in another and state taxpayer money would follow the student. Parents could also send their children to religious schools at taxpayer expense.
“We want to allow families to have a say in what the best educational fit is for their children,” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in a statement last month.
The School Committee voted 6-2 Monday night to oppose LD 2774, An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools. It eliminates the prohibition of taxpayer money to pay tuition to religious schools.
Lewiston also voted 6-2 to oppose LD 2275, “An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students.” That bill would grant school choices throughout Maine, allowing parents to send their children to a school of their choice. Critics say, if passed, that proposal would especially harm rural schools.
Two members who supported both bills were City Councilor Don D'Auteuil, the council's representative on the School Committee, and Sonia Taylor. They said if people want to send their children to Muslim or Christian schools they should be able to do that, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said.
The majority of the board argued that the U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state, and if parents want their child to go to a religious school, “then they should pay for it,” Webster said.
Member Jim Handy, who opposed both bills, said the “free range, wide open school choices the governor has proposed” would not only harm public schools, they would create higher taxes in Lewiston.
Parents like schools where the buildings are new, and would try to send their child to those schools, including some not in Lewiston. The state dollars for the individual students would leave Lewiston, while taxpayers would still be obligated to educate students left behind. “What would happen there would be one or two public schools left. It would create an education wasteland,” Handy said. Private schools would not “have the public interest at mind while spending taxpayer money,” Handy said.
Committee members also voted unanimously to support LD 1865, An Act to Enhance Career and Technical Education. That would mean high schools that share the same regional technical center would have to better coordinate school calendars. The bill would also expand opportunities for high school students to earn college credits.
Lewiston members took no action on a fourth bill, LD 2773, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership. That proposal would require school districts to standardize teacher evaluations systems.
That would allow ineffective teachers who did not meet criteria and improve over a two-year period to be placed on probation and eventually fired. Lewiston is already building a standardized teacher evaluation system, but there are unanswered questions surrounding local control and the authority of superintendents versus school boards, Webster said.
Lewiston's votes have been forwarded to the legislative Education Committee, which will recommend whether the bills be passed or rejected to the House and Senate.