AUGUSTA, Maine — A measure that would reduce funding for virtual public charter schools in Maine has gained initial approval in the House and Senate but faces an uncertain future.

Democrats call LD 1617 a common-sense measure that recognizes the fact that online virtual schools have lower overhead costs compared with brick-and-mortar schools. Republicans said the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to kill virtual public charter schools in Maine.

The bill would have an almost immediate effect on Maine Connections Academy, which was approved by the Maine Charter School Commission earlier this year and is in the process of developing a contract with the state to open this fall, eventually enrolling up to 750 students.

LD 1617 won initial approval with a partisan 20-15 vote in the Senate on Monday with Democrats in the majority, which followed an 86-55 House vote last week on mostly party lines. Sponsored by Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who is House chairman of the Education Committee, the bill calls for the Department of Education to annually set a per-pupil rate for students attending virtual charter schools that doesn’t include services used by traditional schools, such as transportation, nursing and physical education.

Under current law, charter schools are funded with a per-pupil rate that is paid by the student’s public school district of residence. That rate varies from district to district and according to factors such as the student’s age, income and educational needs.

The premise of the bill is that virtual charter schools have lower overhead costs than do brick-and-mortar schools. According to a report cited by Democrats, the cost of running virtual schools is about 24 percent less than traditional schools. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said adjusting funding for virtual public charter schools downward could save $3.5 million a year for local school districts.

“This bill is about making sure that the state is paying for services it receives,” said Millett in a prepared statement. “Virtual education programs do not cost as much to operate as brick-and-mortar schools. And with all the discussion and attention on appropriate expenditure of taxpayer monies, this is about further ensuring that the state is being responsible with its limited financial means.”

MacDonald, during testimony last month when he presented the bill, said he saw the fact that funding for virtual charter schools is the same as other schools was a mistake.

“I believe this was an oversight in the framing of the current law,” said MacDonald. “Online or virtual education has large fiscal efficiencies built in, yet the funding mechanism does not recognize these.”

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, chastised the bill Monday in a written statement.

“This bill is designed to kill virtual charter schools,” said Johnson. “We should be expanding educational options to Maine students and families, not eliminating them. … This war on charter schools and education reform generally must stop if Maine is to move its education system forward.”

The Department of Education also is opposed to the bill, based partially on the administrative burden that would be created by forcing the department to set the annual per-pupil cost.

“Creating such a model would be a fairly massive undertaking, since we do not currently have the data needed to determine any of the cost factors for virtual charter schools,” said the DOE’s director of policy and programs, Deborah Friedman, according to written testimony she gave to the Education Committee last month.

The bill faces more votes in the House and Senate and could encounter resistance from Gov. Paul LePage, who is an ardent supporter of Maine’s three-year-old charter school law. Neither vote on the bill to date exceeded the two-thirds threshold that is required to overcome a gubernatorial veto.

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.