State should supplant local funding for state-enabled charter schools

[House floor speech urging override of Governor’s veto of LD 1057: An Act Related to Funding of Charter Schools, July 9, 2013]

Mr. Speaker, Men and Women of the House,

Most members here, I believe, at this point recognize the problem at the root of the perennial cat fight in this state over the past few years between public community schools and public charter schools.

Under the current arrangement, we in Augusta authorize new charter schools and set the policies and governance structures under which they operate.

But, rather than then also backing these schools up with funding, we stick local school districts — and the property taxpayers that support them — with the balance of the bill — all this without giving them a voice in either the approval or the operation of charter schools — a circumstance that many see as taxation without representation — particularly as more and more communities find themselves supporting two schools while having authority over only one.

This bill would fix that fundamental flaw by having the state take responsibility for funding the schools that it approves by sharing the balance of the burden for that funding across all of GPA — fully, equitably, and reliably funding charter schools just as we attempt to do for all public schools.

And, Mr. Speaker, for most of this session, I believed that, in relieving this chronic tension and solving this underlying cause of the charter school finance squabbles, this would be the bill that our Education Committee, unanimously, would be most proud of.

Through a mechanism proposed by the Commissioner of Education himself, this bill would fund charter schools through the same formula as every Maine public community school — and fully — some skeptics here would caution irretrievably — integrating them into the state’s EPS calculation.

Once within the EPS formula, a charter school’s funding would be as insulated from legislative whim as any other public school.

A vindictive future Appropriations Committee couldn’t curtail funding specifically for the Cornville charter school any more than they could specifically target Bangor for cuts.

From then on, for better or worse, charter funding would rise and fall on the fortunes of state resources through GPA exactly as it does for every Maine public school.

Rather than being at each other’s throats, one can then imagine the Maine School Management and the Maine Charter School Associations jointly testifying — hand-in-hand at Appropriations hearings — reinforcing a common case for holding the line on comprehensive state educational funding.

Up to this point in the bill, I presume to say that there is no dispute either within the Education Committee or with the Commissioner of Education about the merits and desirability of this bill.

But, under this bill, one important distinction does remain between the funding of community schools and charter schools.

Charter schools would get funded — not at an average of 45% of EPS, as are community schools — not even at the elusive 55% of EPS towards which the state struggles.

Charter schools would be fully funded at 100% of EPS.

So we’re left with the challenge of how to report this new category of expenditure for total school funding in the budget.

The single controversial point in this bill is whether or not charter school funding should be visible as a component within the state’s calculation of the Total Cost of Education within the budget document.

I repeat, Mr. Speaker, there is no dispute over either the mechanism or the calculation of the funding level for charter schools.

There is only a dispute over whether transparently representing this cost within the budget document somehow places charter schools in political jeopardy.

Mr. Speaker, for the explicit purpose of transparency, by statute, we require local school districts to report their budgets in 11 cost centers — in agonizing boilerplate — and we require a separate public vote on each of these cost centers at school budget meetings.

Then, considering even that insufficient, we require a second separate public vote by referendum at which we require every budget article to be prominently posted at the polling place.

We do that because we believe transparency is essential to good public process.

So, in my view, the single question before us with this bill is: Should the state funding of charter schools be transparently reported as an ordinary component within the state’s calculation of the Total Cost of Education?

Or should it instead be hidden within some sort of Black Ops section of the Department of Education’s budget?

Mr Speaker, are we for transparency in state spending or are we not? I say we are and I ask that you vote in support of this bill.

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