The coronavirus pandemic and our collective response to it has changed (for better or worse) the way we live, work, teach and do business. Perhaps nothing looks as foreign to us today as our schools, which have widely adopted hybrid learning systems and pushed families into learning environments that may not meet their needs. Parents, students, teachers and administrators are undoubtedly doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt, but it’s no secret the situation is less than ideal for the average family.
Perhaps more than anything, the pandemic has revealed that parents want more choice and more voice in their child’s education. This was highlighted in a recent survey by EdChoice that found 81 percent public support for education savings accounts, an education reform that allows parents to choose where and how their child is educated. This is the highest level of public support ever recorded for education savings accounts in the eight years that EdChoice has polled on the topic.
Unfortunately, members of the 129th Legislature moved our state in the wrong direction on this issue last session. At the behest of the Maine Education Association, Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland sponsored two bills that became law and significantly limited the education options available to Maine families. One bill, L.D. 307, permanently capped at 10 the number of public charter schools permitted to operate in our state. The second, L.D. 513, placed a permanent enrollment cap on Maine’s two virtual charter schools, allowing just 1,000 students to attend these institutions while also preventing them from expanding their services to new grade levels.
Amid the pandemic, demand for these services has only increased. The waitlist at Maine Virtual Academy increased from 200 students in 2019 to 350 in 2020, while the Maine Connections Academy saw its waitlist more than double, from 125 students in 2019 to 300 in 2020. Both schools already serve between 429 and 450 students, meaning they cannot accept any additional enrollments by law.
But if a Maine family sought fully virtual learning for their children at one of these institutions during the pandemic instead of the learning model adopted by their local district, Rep. Brennan’s bill locked them out of the opportunity. Instead of giving parents the option to choose what’s best for their children during these challenging times, Rep. Brennan’s bill forced them to accept a learning model that could actually hinder their education and limit their future success.
What an incredible disservice to families and the next generation of Mainers.
Statewide education policy shouldn’t be about which faculties are represented by the state’s largest teachers union – it should be about serving the needs of our children and ensuring they’re equipped to succeed at the next grade level and, eventually, in life and the real world.
While nobody could have predicted a pandemic was on the horizon, I hope today that Rep. Brennan and his colleagues understand the folly of their actions. What’s best for the Maine Education Association is rarely what’s best for Maine students and families.
This week is National School Choice Week, which is celebrated annually in the month of January. It is the world’s largest celebration of educational opportunity, and a time to honor, recognize and respect the students, families, educators and facilities dedicated to ensuring every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Most importantly, it’s an occasion to celebrate all of the learning options available to families – public schools, private schools, magnet schools, virtual academies, home schooling, learning pods and more. Each learning environment has its own benefits, which is why all of these options should be made available for Maine families to choose from.
The pandemic has exposed the incredible need for flexibility and innovation in our education system. Lawmakers can reward the incredible sacrifice of Maine families over the last year by undoing the harm they caused last session and moving in a direction that gives families more choice and more voice in their child’s education.
This commentary first appeared in the Portland Press Herald.