A case for school choice in Maine

12 years ago
By Stephen Bowen

    We often receive calls at the Maine Department of Education from parents thinking about moving to or within the state asking us “which are the best schools in Maine?” What we tell them is that the best school is the one that is the best fit for their child. While test scores and other measures of student achievement are important, they don’t tell you how your child will do at a school. We encourage parents to speak with the principal, visit the school, and talk with other parents.

    Maine schools, the Department of Education and the Legislature have been transitioning in recent years to a system in which students are allowed to pursue multiple pathways in search of the one that engages them and helps them to achieve. Not every child will thrive at a “top” school, and many students are engaged and succeeding at “lower-performing” schools. What’s needed in our educational system is the ability to offer every student the choice to follow a path that works for them, and for parents to know their child’s learning style and choose a school accordingly.


    But even allowing for such individual approaches, the reality is that no one school can be everything to every student. Isn’t it possible that the best match for a student is not the school in his or her own district, but two towns over, where the school has a focus on drama or environmental science? Isn’t it possible that – for whatever reason – a student might not be comfortable in the school in his or her hometown, but might be somewhere else?

    That is why the Department of Education advanced school choice legislation, which would:

• Allow public schools and eligible private schools – only if they want – to become a School of Choice, allowing students outside their district to enroll; and

• Allow parents to make the decision to enroll their children in schools of choice without getting permission from their superintendent.

    Several thousand families in Maine already have choice: their towns allow them to send their kids to one of several public schools in different districts and, in some cases, even private schools at partial public expense.

    Still thousands more have choice because they can afford it: From paying for private school to moving to another community with public schools that are a better match to the needs of their child; those who can afford it always have school choice.

    For the rest, there is only one choice: the school assigned to them by their street address and arbitrary town lines drawn a century or two ago.

    It is true, as some have argued, that some families cannot afford to drive their children to school in another district. In some cases, they don’t even have a car. The proposed legislation does not require open enrollment schools to transport kids from outside the district.

    But there is a built-in incentive for schools that open their enrollment to students from other communities to offer transportation. Not only does it bring them additional students and education dollars, the state’s transportation formula would largely reimburse most districts for those transportation costs.

    We don’t know exactly what will happen when schools are given the option to accept students from outside their district. Some, perhaps most, will offer transportation out of self-interest and/or the best interest of the children. In others, families will arrange ways to get their children to school through carpools or other solutions.

    I’m glad that all members of the Legislature’s Education Committee agreed that we need to take action on school choice, but disappointed that they put off a decision until next year. There will likely be an amendment on the floor of the House to at least allow for public school choice starting next year; I hope legislators will consider this compromise.

    The proposed school choice legislation does not solve every issue. But it does offer all families more choices than they have now – including those in poverty – who currently have no choice at all.

    Stephen Bowen is commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.