AUGUSTA, Maine — Bills on school choice and government funding of private, religious schools that are part of Gov. Paul LePage’s education package proved to be controversial for the public, which had its first chance to comment on the measures Thursday.

One bill proposes an open enrollment program, in which schools can decide to become “schools of choice” and accept students from outside their districts. Students and families could enroll their students in these “schools of choice” without needing permission from the district in which they reside.

The second bill removes a sentence from current state law that says public dollars cannot be used to fund private, religious schools. Currently any students can attend a religious school, but they must pay tuition.

Opponents, including several high school students, told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education Committee the school choice proposal would hurt public schools, particularly those in rural Maine and could lead to some closing as state aid is shifted from public to private schools.

“Instead of focusing on allowing people to choose one school they like over another, we should make sure that every school is good and has the funding it needs to provide students with a quality education,” said Nash Roy, a senior at Hermon High School.

Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association, argued the measure would have a particularly adverse effect on small, rural school districts.

“Maine already has a school choice law,” he said. “Parents can go and request a child attend another public school in the state, and if the superintendent does not agree, the parents can appeal to the commissioner.”

Galgay said the current law is working well and suggested the options it allows should be more broadly advertised so that parents know they exist.

Jennifer Murray and her daughter Emma from East Millinocket supported the legislation. Murray said she home-schools her daughter because the local school is not providing her the education she needs.

“School choice would force schools to compete,” Murray said, “and those that can’t close, [and] maybe they should.”

Carl Stasio, headmaster at Thornton Academy in Saco, said school choice works. Thornton is a private school that serves 1,300 public school students mostly from Saco, Dayton and Arundel.

“We accept students from wherever they come from,” he said. “We are school choice.”

“School choice is a complex issue,” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told members of the legislature’s Education Committee. “We believe the bill before you does expand options for students that are manageable and fair.”

Bowen stressed the first measure sets up an option for schools and does not require that schools participate. He said it is part of Gov. LePage’s effort to make schools more responsive to individual children.

“This is one step closer to providing a few more options for kids in the hope that one of them is going to be a great fit for that student,” he said. “And, to put an end to the way that a student’s physical address determines the educational options to which they have access.”

The second measure would allow religious schools to get public funds to pay for all or part of a student’s tuition at the school. Bowen was peppered with questions from committee members who were concerned the measure violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

“School funding laws in which parents direct the actions of the government entity — in other words it is the parent, not the government agency that directs the public funding to the religious school — do not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution,” Bowen said.

But opponents argued the language in current law has served the state well. Public funds should not be provided to religious schools, they said, not only because of the constitutional question, but also because it is bad public policy that will take resources away from public schools.

“This would not provide the same choice for students with disabilities that it would other students,” said Jill Adams, executive director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities.

She argued true choice would be if all students, regardless of need, could get all of their educational needs met.

Testimony on the bills stretched well into the evening. Both bills will be discussed by the committee before going to the full Legislature for consideration.

On the Web: LD 1854, An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools and LD 1866, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students.