AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is preparing legislation that would eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Maine, an initiative that is sure to cause significant debate among incoming lawmakers who already face a weighty agenda and difficult funding issues in the education sector.

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Sunday that LePage’s charter school legislation is still under development but confirmed that the governor is intent on abolishing the limit of 10 new charter schools in Maine over the next decade that is currently written into state law.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said Sunday that LePage’s proposal was news to him, so he was hesitant to comment on it in detail. However, he said he has been a critic of charter schools in the past because they take taxpayer money away from public schools and aren’t controlled by democratically elected bodies such as local school boards.

“I am forced to pay my taxes by law and that money goes into our local treasury. By making a private decision to go to a charter school, a family can essentially pull that money out. Just by itself that to me is a problem. It’s pretty close to taxation without representation,” said MacDonald. “I’d rather see people putting their energy and dollars into looking at how we can adapt our needs in the 21st century and focusing on what can be done inside the public schools.”

As with most legislative action in recent years, much of the debate likely will focus on how the change would affect already stretched public school funding. Opponents of the charter school law have long argued that charter schools will pull too much funding away from public schools. Under Maine’s charter school law, state education dollars follow students from their previous public schools to the charter school of their choice. However, LePage and other proponents insist that providing as many options as possible for Maine students is crucial to education reform efforts.

Changes to the charter school law are sure to be part of a wider conversation about school funding. The state’s ongoing financial troubles, coupled with even worse problems at the federal level, including the sunset of stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, mean that when it comes to public education, there is little hope for more funding. From one perspective, the education funding erosion that has been ongoing for at least five years creates a dire financial situation for many Maine schools. From another perspective, it’s forcing the state to develop ways to use existing resources more wisely and in a way that will ease budgetary concerns over the long term.

“From my point of view it’s really about everybody taking a look at whether we’re using our education dollars to their best use,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock County, the ranking Senate Republican on the Legislature’s Education Committee. “We have a good place to start from in really looking at streamlining the efficiencies in our state government.”

Though school funding is at the forefront of concerns among legislators and education policy experts, it is one among several issues that will make for a busy education agenda for the 126th Legislature, which convenes Tuesday. Those issues include several major policy changes enacted in the past two years, ranging from the implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation and training system to an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula, as well as heightened concerns about school security, spurred by last month’s tragic elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Any way you cut it, balancing education policy changes with available funding won’t be easy, according to Connie Brown, who as of last week is the new executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“When you look at the past five or six years of resource erosion, eventually you get into core programs,” said Brown. “I think that’s where schools in Maine are right now. You end up needing to look at programs that unfortunately impact people and teachers. We’re all working really hard to insulate kids from those impacts, but with the erosion of funding that we’ve seen, that’s become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible.”

According to data provided by Brown’s organization, state and federal school funding in 2013 will fall below levels not seen since at least 2007, when general purpose aid for education stood at $914 million. With the help of $163 million in federal stimulus funds that came to Maine between 2009 and 2012, as well as $37 million in increased state aid during the past two years, school funding remained above $900 million per year, but will sink to about $897 million in the current fiscal year, due in part to the end of federal stimulus funding and a recent curtailment order by Gov. LePage that cuts $12.6 million from public school funding in response to lower-than-forecasted state revenues. Whether further cuts to education funding will be included in an expected supplemental budget bill for the current fiscal year or in LePage’s two-year biennial budget proposal are unclear.

“The first and foremost thing on everyone’s mind is working through these funding issues,” said Brown.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Sagadahoc, incoming Senate Majority Leader, said his caucus is singularly focused on providing as much funding as possible.

“As Democrats we’re very focused on limiting the impact to our public schools,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to advocate for a strong position for public education.”

According to Brown and Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley, the creation of more charter schools would only increase financial pressures on Maine schools. Of chief concern to some is the creation of so-called virtual charter schools, two of which are under consideration by the Maine Charter School Commission. Some say virtual charter schools, which allow students to take classes over the Internet, have had questionable success elsewhere and would drain even more money from public school coffers.

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Lincoln County, a member of the Education Committee, said his caucus will tread very carefully when it comes to virtual charter schools, perhaps by advocating for an incremental roll-out that combines online offerings with existing public school programs.

“I think it would be smarter for the state to pursue those options before moving to something more drastic,” he said.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.