Commentary

New school choice project highlights need for more educational options in Maine

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A new publication from Maine Policy Institute shows which municipalities in Maine allow public K-12 education funding to follow their resident students to a school of their choice. These towns, numbering only 87 out of more than 500 localities, provide greater choice for families than the one-size-fits-all ZIP code-based enrollment system the vast majority of Maine students are offered. 

The interactive School Choice Map of Maine provides essential information to families on where to reside if they would like more than one publicly-funded schooling option for their children. Through a mechanism known as “town-tuitioning,” school-age children in Maine who reside in a municipality that does not operate its own schools, or contract with another school or district, have the option to attend a public or private school of their choice under certain conditions.

Under this arrangement, the student’s town pays tuition up to the maximum amount provided by law. Otherwise, students may transfer between school districts, but absent town-tuitioning, Maine law clarifies that the “student’s parent or guardian shall pay the cost of tuition and transportation.

A recent poll conducted by RealClear Opinion Research shows that a substantial portion of parents favor more schooling options, particularly when it comes to the existence of school masking policy. Overall, 64% of parents polled said that they support “school vouchers for private or home schooling for families who feel their child is unsafe in their public school because their school district is not imposing a mask mandate.” Only 21% were opposed. Among Democrats, 69% favored the idea.

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, seems to support this measure of parental choice as well.

In June, a poll found that 74% of voters generally support the concept of school choice, with two-thirds of respondents in favor of parents directing some amount of COVID-related spending on education. Data clearly show that most parents—nationally and in Maine—want more educational options based on their unique preferences. Reforms to expand town-tuitioning to every student in every corner of Maine through “fully-open enrollment” could help every family find the best school for their child’s needs.

Ideally, in order for an open enrollment policy to be the most effective, every option would be on the table, including public schools, like a traditional district school or charter, a homeschooling program, or a private school. School districts may also need to be required to accept student requests, with limited exceptions based on school capacity limitations. In order to better facilitate parent knowledge, districts may also need to report their existing student counts relative to their capacity online, as Florida and West Virginia require.

Existing limits on Maine’s charter schools would also need to be lifted. Charters are public schools, and important tools in ensuring a full suite of adequate educational opportunities exist. Unfortunately, in 2019, legislators and Governor Mills supported a radical bill which capped the number of charter schools in operation at 10, and even instituted an overall enrollment limit of 1,000 students for the state’s two sole virtual charter schools. 

As nonsensical as this policy was before the pandemic, leaving it intact while unprepared school districts were shoved into remote and hybrid learning for all of last school year undoubtedly led to more learning loss among Maine students. Instead of empowering those who know how to administer virtual learning, legislators maintained these restrictions on the state’s virtual charters while their waiting lists exploded.

Private schools make up 14 of the top 25 high schools in Maine as graded by Niche.com. Among these are two “sectarian” schools: Cheverus in Portland and St. Dominic in Auburn. Unfortunately, simply because of their religious character, current law restricts the top-notch education offered at these schools to families who use the town tuitioning program. The state should not limit this publicly-available school choice benefit on the basis of certain families’ religious preferences.

Relevant to this question is a case from Maine currently on the docket of the Supreme Court of the United States. Carson v. Makin is a challenge to the state’s prohibition on public education funds for “sectarian” or religious private schools in which three Maine families argue that the law oversteps citizens’ Free Exercise of religion under the First Amendment. If the Court follows Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2020 majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue that “once a State decides to [subsidize private education], it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Maine students will have access to even more high quality schooling options through the tuitioning program. 

Data from other states’ open enrollment programs show that students who utilize it predominantly do so in order to attend better performing schools. Reason Foundation analyses found that in Florida, “more than 90 percent of inter-district transfer students attend A- or B-rated school districts,” and in Texas, more than 27% of transferred students moved to a better-performing school than their home district. Nearly a third of students in “F” rated districts by state testing standards transferred out of them.

A 2016 review of 18 studies using random assignment showed in 14 of them, greater parental choice improved academic outcomes, particularly among those from disadvantaged backgrounds or low-income households.

We should expect similar effects of open enrollment policy in Maine. Even if only a small portion of students overall choose to use it, those students will do so because they want a better education, plain and simple. Thus, this policy can only help students and families. While it may cause some headaches for school superintendents and administrators, these costs must be measured against the potential benefits to the individual students who would use it, and to the school system overall through fiercer competition among schools.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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