Reorganization and the Threat to Maine’s Tradition of School Choice

Read the full report | Before adjourning its recent session, the state legislature approved a much-needed and long-awaited bill to fix some of the technical and other issues with the controversial school district reorganization law passed last year. With that done, reorganization planning committees across the state are going back to work, racing to comply with consolidation deadlines. As regionalization efforts continue, school choice supporters and those families that currently enjoy school choice opportunities should remain vigilant. District consolidation efforts have already meant the end of some school choice options in the Bath area, and they may threaten opportunities for a choice of schools elsewhere.

Findings:

• School choice options have existed in a number of Maine communities for generations, a legacy of the days when many towns did not operate their own schools. Such municipalities “tuition” their students to schools in nearby towns. In most communities of this type, parents and students can choose the school they wish to attend, with the tuition paid for by the town, up to a certain rate established by the state. In this way, students in many Maine communities enjoy educational options of the very kind advanced by school choice advocates across the nation.

• Despite promises that such opportunities for a choice of schools would be preserved during the reorganization process, school choice options have been limited or eliminated in a number of reorganization proposals, including one that has already been approved by the education commissioner. Voters may be asked to approve plans of this kind within weeks.

• A number of other reorganization efforts have yet to fully develop their school choice policies. As there are several reorganization proposals that would merge choice and non-choice districts, school choice options are potentially threatened in many areas of Maine where reorganization plans have yet to be finalized.

• As written, the provision of the reorganization law that protects school choice will ultimately result in some students within a new regional school unit having a choice of schools while others do not. This has been problematic for reorganization planners, some of whom have worked to find a way around the law’s protection of school choice options as a way of advancing reorganization proposals.

• A careful review of state statute reveals an apparent loophole in the law, which appears to allow school choice to be curtailed or eliminated though the use of tuitioning contracts. Such contracts have been used in the past to limit school choice options in some communities, and are apparently under use again to circumvent the reorganization law’s intended protection of school choice options.

• School choice in Maine is not simply a tradition dating back generations, but has been proven both in Maine and elsewhere to improve student performance outcomes, especially among disadvantaged students, while savings tax dollars.