AUGUSTA, Maine — A provision in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal that seeks to create a voucher system for underprivileged students and families is set to reignite the legislative debate over school choice one year after the concept was rejected by lawmakers.

Deep within LePage’s 2014-15 biennial budget document is language that if passed would represent a major policy shift in Maine’s education system, giving low-income students the freedom to take taxpayer dollars with them to whatever school they choose, including private ones. There’s $530,000 in public money behind the idea.

Many students in Maine already go to public schools outside their home districts through superintendent agreements or rulings by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. In those cases, taxpayer dollars follow the student from school to school — but public money funding students’ private school tuition is a new concept in Maine, other than at “town academies,” which are private schools under contract to serve as public schools in municipalities that don’t have their own.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the Education Committee, shared the concerns of some education organizations that the policy shift has the potential to take too much money away from public schools. While the amount of money involved in LePage’s proposal is relatively small, MacDonald said the policy shift behind it could open the door to a full-blown voucher system in the future.

“I want to see taxpayer money going to public schools,” said MacDonald. “I’m looking to cut back on this language [in the budget].”

According to the language in the budget, families whose students qualify for free or reduced lunch would be eligible for reimbursements for tuition, room and board and transportation of a student to another school.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents Maine public school teachers, questioned why the proposal is coming to the Legislature again after school choice was rejected soundly last year.

“Is that really what the Maine taxpayer wants, for their taxpayer money to pay for tuition at a private school?” asked Kilby-Chesley. “I definitely think this is a way to circumvent what the Legislature decided not to circumvent last year.”

The budget language is attached to $530,000 that was earmarked by legislation in 2009 for the Center of Excellence for At-risk Students at the former Good Will-Hinckley School in Hinckley before it became the state’s first charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, last year. MEANS now is funded under the charter school law. The $530,000, under LePage’s proposal, would flow into a new account called the Choice and Opportunity Fund.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education and by extension the LePage administration, said the change would be consistent with LePage’s long-held opinion that students should have the choice to go to whichever school suits them best.

“I don’t know that ‘voucher’ is the right word for this, but it’s certainly consistent with what the governor has been saying all along,” said Connerty-Marin. “The governor and the commissioner are supportive of allowing more choices for families and kids. Choice is great, but what if low-income kids can’t afford it? Families of means always have the choice. They can pay for private school or transportation to another school. Those options are not available to low-income families.”

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, said he wants to better understand the funding aspect of the budget language before voicing support or opposition. Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, another Education Committee member, also said he wants to know more about the funding and how it would affect general purpose aid for public schools.

“My concern with the choice issue is its capacity to negatively affect public education,” said Hubbell.

Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said she wishes the debate could occur outside the confines of a budget bill.

“The place for this dialogue is not the biennial budget,” she said. “We need to have a serious conversation about this initiative with public oversight and input.”

Connerty-Marin said some aspects of the idea are still under development by the Department of Education. He expects lawmakers to have more details about the proposal in the coming weeks as the biennial budget bill begins to work its way through the legislative process.

“We simply want to give low-income students more than one option,” 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.