AUGUSTA, Maine — For years, 14-year-old Riley Deraps of South Portland felt like the public school system had him stuck on a track to somewhere he didn’t want to go. After he signed up for required classes, there were only one or two slots left in his daily schedule to pursue his interests.

Then Deraps enrolled at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, one of five charter schools that have opened in Maine in the past two years.

“I was just blown away by the choices I had,” said Deraps, a Baxter freshman who spent Monday at the State House extolling the virtues of the charter school education model for Maine Charter School Day.

Tyler Goodridge, 15, had for years been living and going to school in Kuwait and Bahrain. After moving to Maine, the sophomore said he decided Baxter Academy was the right place during his entrance interview.

“She was asking me what I’ve been learning and what I’m actually interested in,” said Goodridge of the Baxter Academy representative who interviewed him. “It made me feel like I was more in control of what I’m doing.”

The controversy over whether Maine should have charter schools is largely over, as students like Deraps and Goodridge share experiences that confirm arguments by proponents who say the state’s 2011 charter law is about giving students choices regarding their educations. But the debate around how charter schools are funded and how available they should be for Maine students continues.

Bob Kautz, executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, said Thursday, Jan. 23, that there are less than 400 students attending the state’s five public charter schools this year. However, the commission’s consideration of four new applications, including two virtual charter schools — meaning students take their courses from remote locations with the use of the Internet — could open the door for that number to more than triple as early as this fall.

Subcommittees of the commission have spent the last several weeks poring through the applications and more recently, interviewing the applicants. The full commission is set to vote Thursday on which applications will continue through the months-long approval process.

The commission is set to vote March 4 on whether to preliminarily approve any applications and enter into final contract negotiations.

Opponents of virtual schools, who argue that their track records in other states are far from perfect and that they will pull too much money from traditional public schools, are already on the defensive.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who is a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has proposed a legislative resolve that calls for the creation of a state-run virtual public charter school that would be operational by Aug. 1, 2016. The same bill, LD 1736, calls for a moratorium on the approval of any virtual charter schools between now and then. The bill, which is presented as an emergency measure and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has yet to be heard by the Education Committee.

Funding for charter schools is another issue that continues to stir debate. The current funding model siphons money away from charter school students’ home districts based on the state’s Essential Programs and Services model. That amounts to a minimum of approximately $6,500 per student per year, though the funding level is higher for high school-age students and schools that accept students with developmental or economic special needs.

Some school boards, administrators and education associations have long argued that the current funding model takes too much from public schools, though charter school operators say state funding alone won’t sustain them into the future, especially in the event that they need to make expensive infrastructure upgrades or repairs.

Justin Belanger, executive director of the Cornville Regional Charter School, which opened in 2012, said his organization conducts local fundraisers and solicits the federal government and other organizations for grants, but that may not be enough. He said the day could come when the organization will have to do a capital campaign.

Kautz said the charter commission doesn’t approve schools unless they present financially sustainable plans, but there are some on the commission who hope the Legislature increases funding in the future.

“We would hope that at some point in time when charter schools prove themselves as being a worthy part of the education system, that the Legislature will take a look at that,” said Kautz.

Education Commission Jim Rier, who was at Monday’s event, said he agrees the funding formula needs attention. He said he was disappointed last year when a department-led bill that would have funded charter schools within the EPS formula — just like all of Maine’s other schools are funded — failed to pass through the Legislature. In essence, it would have spread the cost of charter schools across the state and had the money flow from state government down, as opposed to having charter schools bill their students’ sending districts. Rier said approximately 50 Maine school districts are paying to send some of their students to charter schools.

“It’s a very burdensome process,” said Rier.

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.