The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new light and perspectives to many issues we may never look at the same: politics, science, public health, going out to dinner, even getting our cocktails to-go. Among these is the debate over school choice.
COVID-19 shined a spotlight on the current state of America’s education system, especially that of Maine. During a time when traditional public schools shuttered their classrooms and offered limited flexibility, the support for school choice has never been greater.
According to an April 7 poll by RealClear Opinion Research, 71% of registered voters support the general idea of school choice, the highest number ever recorded through major AFC national polling with a sample size greater than 800 voters.
Maine has the second oldest school choice program in the nation, but it is one of the most limited programs as well. Students are only afforded school choice if there is not a public school in their town and their town does not have a contract to send their students to another town’s schools.
Waitlists for Maine’s two virtual charter schools have grown significantly in light of the pandemic. Maine Virtual Academy’s waitlist increased from 200 students to 350 from 2019 to 2020, and the Maine Connections Academy’s waitlist more than doubled, from 125 students to 300.
Despite this, Maine families were still heavily restricted when it came to opting for a different schooling option during the pandemic. L.D. 513, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland during the 129th Legislature, prevented families from being able to shift out of the schooling option adopted by their district and into a virtual charter school. If a family wanted to move their child to fully online schooling, but their district didn’t offer that option, their hands were tied.
As demand for a more diverse breadth of schooling options has increased due to the flexibility (or lack thereof) offered during the pandemic, the context surrounding the debate of school choice has changed as well.
One of the most robust school choice programs in the country can be found in Washington, D.C, called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Authorized by Congress in 2004, it aims to serve students from low-income households through a school voucher program.
According to a 2010 study mandated by Congress, parental satisfaction, perception of school safety and graduation rates were all up due to the program’s implementation. There were no statistically significant changes in standardized test scores.
Students using vouchers in D.C. reached a graduation rate of 91 percent, compared to 70 percent for non-voucher students. This statistic highlights the key benefit of school choice: flexibility for students. By forcing students to attend the school in the district in which they reside, governments potentially limit a child’s growth by sticking them in a school environment that is not conducive to learning, or one unfit for their particular needs.
With a voucher program or similar arrangements, students have the option of choosing the school that is best for them, and it’s been shown to work. School choice programs avoid the problems associated with a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling, and instead fund students, not school systems.
Public support for school choice has never been higher, and the worldwide pandemic highlighted exactly why Maine families should have more options for their children.
Lawmakers must take note and commit to heeding the voices of families when deciding on legislation that impacts them. COVID-19 revealed the changes needed in Maine’s education system in a way that can no longer be ignored.
Would your family have benefitted from school choice during the pandemic? We want to hear from you. Tell us about your family’s education woes during the pandemic at firstname.lastname@example.org.