Bowen testimony in opposition to amend charter school funding

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing April 1 on legislation that eliminates the requirement that local funding follow a student to a charter school; adjusts the funding transferred from school districts to charter schools; and amends several funding requirements for charter schools.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen delivered the following testimony in opposition to LD 533, An Act to Eliminate the Requirement that Local Funding Follow a Pupil to a Charter School; LD 889, An Act to Adjust Funding Forwarded from School Districts to Charter Schools; and LD 1057, An Act Related to Public Funding of Charter Schools.

Testimony of Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of Education

View the bill language:

Senator Millett, Representative MacDonald, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of the Department of Education, and I am here today representing the Department speaking in Opposition to L.D. 533 An Act to Eliminate the Requirement that Local Funding Follow a Pupil to a Charter School, L.D. 889 An Act to Adjust Funding Forwarded from School Districts to Charter Schools, and L.D. 1057 An Act Related to Public Funding of Charter Schools.

The three bills before you today have two things in common: they all seek to change how public charter schools are funded and in the view of the Department and the LePage administration, they all seek to do so in an effort to undermine charter schools financially with the goal of imperiling the public charter schools themselves and the public charter school movement in Maine more broadly.

There can be no other way to interpret these bills.

L.D. 533 would slash funding for public charter schools unless they become discriminatory in their enrollment, which neither they, nor any other public school are allowed to do, and admit only those student determined, either by someone unnamed or some process undetermined, to be “at-risk”.  Public charter schools seeking to meet the unique learning needs of Maine students determined by these unspecified methods not to be at-risk might receive, depending on the sending school unit, no public funding whatsoever under the provisions of this bill.

L.D. 889 would likewise slash funding for public charter schools, this time cutting per-pupil allocations in half and providing no funding whatsoever for students whose families had the nerve to homeschool or who paid to have their child attend a private school in the prior year.

The last bill, L.D. 1057, though still in concept draft form, would evidently provide no public funding for public charter schools whatsoever.  The concept language has the Department establish an account to fund the operation of charter schools, but gives the Department no authority to fund schools from that account, as it establishes no process for doing so. The Commissioner is to recommend, to some entity not named in the bill, “an annual amount of state funding” but nothing in the language actually empowers the Commissioner or the Department to actually provide funding to public charter schools. The only conclusion one can reach is that public charter school funding would, under this language, be subject to potential de-appropriation by the Legislature every legislative session, making the long-term survival of charter schools in Maine untenable.  The other components of the concept draft—the establishment of a ceiling, but not a floor, on whatever funding public charter schools would receive, if any; the near total elimination of funding for virtual charter schools; and the elimination of any transportation services for charter schools – even to bring public charter school students to their neighborhood school where they could then be transported by and to the public charter school—combine to completely undermine these schools financially, making the  opening and survival of public charter schools in Maine impossible.

If making it impossible for charter schools to succeed in Maine is indeed the intent of three bills, I would ask that sponsors of these bills, for the sake of making their intentions clear, abandon the “death by a thousand cuts” approach these bills represent, and simply introduce legislation to repeal the charter school law.  Put that bill in front of this Committee, in front of the full Legislature, and ultimately in front of the Governor and let’s have an open debate about whether we want to have public charter schools meeting the learning needs of Maine’s students or not.

In summary, the Department of Education opposes these three bills.   I’m happy to try to answer any questions the Committee may have, and I will be here for the work session on these bills.

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