AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Education Committee on Tuesday abruptly tabled a proposal to change the way charter schools are funded, even though the proposal was what members of the committee had requested.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen presented formal language to the committee that followed up on their request earlier this month to explore a new funding mechanism for charter schools. Bowen’s proposal is to allocate funding to charter schools through the state’s essential programs and services formula, which determines how much subsidy each school district receives. That would be a departure from the current system, in which school districts that lose students to charter schools must pay the charter school for the student’s full tuition. Critics have said that unfairly impacts school districts who have charter schools nearby, though even under Bowen’s new proposal, traditional school districts would eventually lose the funding anyway because of declining enrollments.

The discussion came during consideration of LD 1057, An Act Related to Public Funding of Charter Schools, which is a concept draft filed by Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield. Concept drafts are usually meant for committees to fill in details during the work session process.

Some members of the Education Committee said they prefer a separate line item in the state budget specifically for charter schools — not to have them lumped in with traditional schools.

“Every school district in the state is going to end up funding those charter schools,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who is co-chairman of the Education Committee. “To me that was what I was trying to avoid, the poison in that whole process was around that punitive funding mechanism in which a local district is punished unwittingly. … it would be death by 1,000 cuts across a lot of districts. … To me it’s a non-starter.”

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, said he favors an approach that’s as hands-off as possible.

“I see the way charter schools are created; they have an advantage,” said McClellan. “They haven’t been polluted by the Legislature like the public schools have. I think the charter schools will outdistance the public schools, and it’s not the public schools’ fault.”

Shortly after that, the committee went into recess, during which lawmakers met behind closed doors. When they returned about 15 minutes later, MacDonald motioned to table the item, which received unanimous support.

Outside the meeting, Bowen said that he didn’t know what was going on but was hopeful that his proposal still has life.

“There’s still some work to be done, but it didn’t seem to me as though the debate in there was around the basics of this model,” said Bowen. “I really don’t know what the issue is but I’m sure we’ll find out.”

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.