Commentary

Maine has the systems in place to facilitate statewide open enrollment in K-12 education

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Support for school choice is becoming increasingly strong and widespread, actually transcending the often-impervious boundaries of political party identification. Over the course of nearly two years, support increased by eight percentage points and rose at approximately the same rate among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. 

In Maine, there are currently three types of choice available to parents and students, namely Town TuitioningSuperintendents’ Agreements, and the option to enroll in one of the state’s public charter schools. While this is a good starting point, a lot more work needs to be done to ensure that students and their families have the educational freedom they want and need. Creating a system of statewide public school open enrollment is integral to achieving that goal. In fact, Maine actually has the basic infrastructure in place to make statewide open enrollment a reality. 

Essentially, open enrollment offers students universal public school choice by allowing parents to enroll their children in a public school located outside their residential district. If a public school has an available seat, any student in the state who desires it should be able to fill it.

According to an April 2022 Morning Consult poll, conducted in conjunction with EdChoice, 76% of school parents are in support of first-come, first-serve interdistrict open enrollment policies. Similar to school choice more broadly, positive sentiment toward public school open enrollment crosses party lines, with 72% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats expressing support for it.

Current open enrollment policies vary across the country. Thirteen states allow all students, regardless of where in the state they live, to enroll in any district’s public school. Eighteen states require that schools accept out of district students under certain circumstances, for example if they are looking to transfer out of a low-performing school or if the family lives unreasonably far from their assigned school. In 19 states, including Maine, schools are allowed to accept students from outside the district, but approval is generally required for the transfer to be completed. Oregon, Alabama, and North Carolina do not allow for interdistrict public school choice of any kind, according to National School Choice Week. 

Typically, state open enrollment policies fall into one of two categories, either mandatory or voluntary. While voluntary open enrollment policies allow school districts to decide what restrictions they want to place on enrollment, mandatory open enrollment requires districts to accept students regardless of their geographic location.

Although a voluntary open enrollment program may sound attractive, it has been demonstrated that such policies actually further entrench geographic barriers to accessing quality education.

2017 study examining Ohio’s voluntary open enrollment program found that nonparticipating school districts were “disproportionately clustered in the suburbs surrounding Ohio’s Big 8 urban areas.” Consequently, students living in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton are largely unable to enroll in schools outside their district without traveling a significant distance. Furthermore, some “outer-ring suburbs” only allowed students from adjacent districts to enroll, which means that students looking to transfer from the city proper would not have their requests approved. 

Regardless of underlying motivations, these suburbs’ decision to opt out of the open enrollment program, either partially or entirely, “removes some of the highest-quality educational options in the state from potential open enrollers.”

Mandatory open enrollment policies, however, would not preclude districts from giving certain students priority if there are more potential enrollees than open seats at a given school. There are some states that allow for, or sometimes even mandate, that preferential treatment be given to particular students should this scenario arise. 

For example, Florida requires that dependent children of active duty military personnel whose move resulted from military orders, children who have been relocated due to a foster care placement in a different school zone, children who move due to a court-ordered change in custody due to separation, divorce, or the serious illness or death of a custodial parent, along with students already residing in the district, be given first pick of a school’s open seats. 

In Arizona, schools are allowed to give preference to students who, among other things, are in foster care, homeless, currently attending a school that is slated to close, or have parents who work at the school into which they are trying to transfer.

Clearly establishing these special designations ensures that students who possess a particular need for an interdistrict transfer are not going to face significant difficulty in obtaining one, should there be more requests for transfers to a particular school than there are seats available. That said, once transfers are approved for all students who fall under these preferential categories, a random lottery should be used to determine which students fill the remaining available seats. 

By modifying Maine’s Superintendents’ Agreement program, the state could cleanly implement statewide open enrollment. Currently, in order to obtain a transfer under this program, parents must write a letter to the superintendent of their assigned school district, as well as to the superintendent of the district they wish to transfer their child into, explaining why they seek the transfer.

The superintendents of both the sending and receiving districts must agree that the transfer is “in a student’s best interest” and mutually sign off on it. It only takes a thumbs down from one superintendent for the student’s transfer to be denied. There are no clear guidelines outlining acceptable and unacceptable reasons for rejecting a family’s request to transfer.

Although the state’s official website does outline some “considerations” for superintendents, they are largely subjective and ambiguous. In addition to making decisions about what they believe is in a student’s “best interest,” superintendents are instructed to think about what “impact” a transfer would have on a student. For example, the guidelines note that “consistency may be in the best interest of students in the latter part of their high school career.” As it stands now, the Superintendents’ Agreement program allows administrators to make serious judgment calls that should rightfully be reserved for parents or guardians.

Establishing statewide open enrollment in Maine could be accomplished, in large part, by streamlining the Superintendents’ Agreement process that is already in place. By removing burdensome requirements for families and replacing layers of bureaucratic red-tape with clear, decisive guidelines, Maine could efficiently make the transition to a system of statewide public school open enrollment.

Instead of leaving a student’s ability to choose their school up to superintendents, it would be based on whether or not there is adequate space available in the intended receiving district. This would place decisions about what is in a student’s “best interest” firmly back where it belongs: in the hands of parents and guardians. 

This would also allow for a simplification of the application process itself. Instead of requiring a detailed letter explaining why their child would benefit from an interdistrict transfer, families would be able to fill out a straightforward application, indicating the school into which they wish to transfer their student and what, if any, preferential statuses apply to them. With this information, districts would be able to make objective admissions decisions based on the amount of space they have available.

Complete transparency is another essential element of a statewide open enrollment program. Parents and families should be able to quickly and easily see how many seats are open at a particular school, as well as how many transfer applications have been submitted. With this information publicly accessible, there is little room for a district to unfairly or improperly deny a student the opportunity to enroll elsewhere. 

Questions about transportation also often arise surrounding statewide open enrollment, but Arizona’s policy could serve as an effective template for Maine. School districts in Arizona are required to “provide [to the students they educate] transportation limited to not more than thirty miles each way to and from the school of attendance.” Given that Maine is a largely rural state, a similar provision would be an effective way to ensure that students are, within reason, given the same advantage of publicly-provided transportation without placing undue cost burdens on school districts that may enroll students living in another town. 

It is important to note that statewide open enrollment would not supplant Maine’s longstanding Town Tuitioning program, but rather it would supplement it. Ensuring that children living in rural Maine have adequate access to education is incredibly important, and steps should be taken so that the program from which rural students have benefited since 1873 is not negatively impacted. The legislation establishing statewide open enrollment in Maine ought to include a requirement, similar to those found in Florida law, that public schools give preference to transfer students eligible for Town Tuitioning should there be more prospective enrollees than available spots at a particular school. 

The budgetary impact, which must be taken into account with any policy proposal, is already well-established in Maine when it comes to statewide open enrollment. Under the existing Superintendents’ Agreement program, students who are granted transfers are not charged any tuition, as they have essentially shifted their residence, for purposes of their education, from one district to another. Consequently, the receiving district “takes ownership” of transferred students and, in accordance, receives the state subsidy associated with them.

Although a recent controversy surrounding the denial of requests to transfer out of RSU 70 in Hodgdon has raised some questions regarding the cost of allowing interdistrict transfers, concerned parents have made astute observations in response. Most notably, Julie Peters, whose daughter is the beneficiary of a Superintendents’ Agreement, said that instead of worrying about a loss of funds, the district ought to consider why so many parents are looking to transfer in the first place. 

“Why don’t we find out more about why so many people are asking instead of just denying?” she asked at a May 2022 RSU 70 school board meeting, according to The County. “Why don’t we get to the bottom of the root causes of these requests? Why are you losing students?” 

Given the existing Superintendents’ Agreement program, Maine does not have to build its statewide open enrollment policy from the ground up. Rather, it can modify the structures already in place to give agency back to students and their families and ensure that all children, regardless of their ZIP code, have the opportunity to access the best possible education.

Education should always be student-focused, and statewide open enrollment actively encourages local public schools to think, first and foremost, of how to provide the best possible student experience to each child. Educating students to the best of their abilities should be the sole purpose of the public school system, and it’s time that Maine’s policies truly reflect that ambition by allowing open enrollment.

About Libby Palanza

Libby Palanza, born and raised in southern Maine, is a senior at Harvard College studying Government with a focus on American Politics. She is an active member of the Harvard Institute of Politics and has held leadership positions in several campus organizations. She is currently a Public Policy Intern at Maine Policy Institute and looks forward to pursuing a law degree in the future.

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