AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers reacted warmly Tuesday to a concept presented by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen that would drastically change how charter schools in Maine are funded, spreading the financial responsibility to every school district in the state.

In response to requests from lawmakers to explore new funding models, Bowen said he has developed the frame of a program that would treat charter schools the same as any other school district within the state’s funding formula.

Currently, charter schools receive public tax dollars from their students’ sending districts, which are required to contribute a per-student amount to the charter school based on the state’s Essential Programs and Services program. That means that traditional public school districts that lose students to charter schools end up losing more funding than other districts that do not.

The concept introduced by Bowen would spread the cost of charter schools across every school district in the state, minimizing the impact on individual schools in favor of having everyone pay a lower amount. Individual schools would still be impacted in the long term because their subsidies would shrink along with their student enrollments, said Bowen.

“It would work just as if they were school districts,” said Bowen. “They would get state subsidy from us just as school districts do. … You’re not going to have a disproportionate impact on any single district. This is a state level initiative.”

Opponents of charter schools have long argued that charter schools hurt nearby public schools because they divert funding away from necessary local programs. They have advocated for a dedicated funding stream outside general purpose aid for education, which represents the bulk of state funding for public schools.

One case in point is RSU 54 in the Skowhegan area, which last fall had two charter schools open nearby, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School in Cornville. RSU 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry has said his district lost 50 students and $455,000 to the charter schools this year and expects that more than $600,000 of his district’s revenues could go to the charter schools next year.

Legislators reacted warmly to Bowen’s concept though some said there is more work to be done before trying to implement it.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who co-chairs the Education Committee, said it was a good starting concept.

“Though I have some questions and concerns about it, it does represent to me an interesting initiative and a chance for us to work together on a solution,” said MacDonald. “I do feel that we’re beginning to set the table around something which we will be able to reach a good compromise.”

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, agreed.

“I think this is a really promising idea,” he said.

Bowen said there were some problems that would have to work out, including the flow of funding in the first years after the law’s application and how to deal with special education funding, but that this idea was the easiest way to alter the formula. However, he said it would be difficult to implement the new formula in time for the coming school year.

“The goal here was ‘let’s not reinvent the wheel,” said Bowen. “This is taking advantage of existing structures.”

There was some hesitation. Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, said some questions would have to be answered before the concept earns his support.

“I am a little worried about unintended consequences of doing something like this,” he said.

The Education Committee is considering numerous bills related to charter schools and their funding. The committee took no action on Bowen’s presentation and were moving toward writing a committee bill that incorporates a range of ideas.

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.