AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Education Committee voted 8-5 along party lines Wednesday to include charter schools in $12.6 million in cuts to education aid, sparking the latest partisan battle on education reforms.
Majority Democrats said the vote endorsed fairness. Republicans labeled it an attack on a key component of education reform measures enacted since 2011 by the LePage administration and the GOP-led 125th Legislature.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration did not include any cuts to charter school funding in the $12.6 million reduction proposed in state aid to schools as part of a spending curtailment order announced in late December to help fill a $35.5 million hole in the current state budget.
On Jan. 4, Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett told the budget-writing Appropriations Committee that savings realized by cutting state aid to Maine’s two charter schools, which serve just more than 100 students, would be inconsequential. He reiterated that stance Wednesday.
“We declined to curtail quasi-governmental groups with very small budgets because it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” Millett said.
But Democrats have questioned the fairness of excluding charter schools from the proposed cuts since they were announced. On Wednesday, all eight Democrats on the Education Committee voted to apply a formula that would reduce aid to charter schools by the same per-student rate that funding to districts in which those students live would be cut. All five Republicans on the committee voted against the recommendation, which now goes to the Appropriations Committee.
School districts in which students reside pay tuition for each student who attends one of Maine’s public charter schools. The state’s first two public charter schools, the Cornville Regional Charter School and the the Academy of Natural Science at Good Will-Hinckley, opened in fall 2012.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Republican legislators reacted angrily to Wednesday’s vote.
“Out of the hundreds of public and private schools in Maine, the Democrats on the committee only went after the two charter schools, both of them in their first year of operation, and with a combined student enrollment of 106 students,” Bowen said in a statement released Wednesday evening. “There are no real budget savings to be had there. The clear intent of this action was for Democrats to send a message that they want charter schools to fail.”
Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, a member of the committee, dismissed GOP characterizations of Wednesday’s vote as an assault on charter schools.
“Charter schools are a reality,” she said. “I am concerned about the impact funding them has on our public schools, but we have to make sure we have good charter schools and good public schools. It’s about making the supplemental budget fair.”
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the Education Committee, said the vote upheld a principle of fairness and was meant to align the impact of state aid reductions on charter schools and school districts. He said the committee’s recommendation calls for charter schools to experience the same percentage of aid reduction as sending districts.
“A number of us felt it was a matter of unfairness of not having the charter schools asked to participate in the curtailment that public schools are being asked to take,” MacDonald said. “It’s just a matter of basic common fairness.”
Bowen perceived a deeper political motive. He said that the committee’s recommendation “will save one district less than $2,500 and a handful of other districts far less,” and that it did not target other schools, such as the magnet school in Limestone and private academies, which also were not included in LePage’s original curtailment plan.
“They are undermining the work of people and organizations who are giving a handful of students in the state an opportunity, a chance to engage in school in a way that works better for them,” he said in a prepared statement.
However, one of those people, Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley, submitted a letter to the committee expressing support for cutting aid to charter schools by the same per-student percentage as aid to each school district.
“The letter basically outlines an understanding that we are all in this together,” Cummings said. “As a public charter school, we feel we have an obligation to be part of the curtailment just like any other school.”
He estimated that applying the curtailment formula to the Academy of Natural Sciences would cut less than $10,000 in aid to the school, where about 50 students are enrolled.
Cummings, a Democrat and former speaker of the Maine House, emphasized that his letter specifically addresses fairness in the LePage administration’s proposed education funding cuts for this year. “I see this as outside the bigger fight” about charter schools, Cummings said, adding that he would continue to advocate for public charter schools during future legislative discussions.
“Mr. Cummings is pragmatic, and he likely felt that if he gives a little here, he’ll gain more in the budget process,” Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said in a release from the House Republicans.
The proposed state education aid cuts to local school districts under LePage’s curtailment order also don’t affect funding for about 5,000 students who attend private academies with tuition paid by local school districts.