Maine Parents United for School Choice

Published January 1, 2009

Parents and voters in Orland, a small rural town in northeastern Maine, have decided to preserve their right to school choice through a narrow 671-644 vote.

The November vote is a victory for school choice proponents, who believe all parents should have the right to decide where their children will attend school.

For the past 135 years, rural Maine towns that are too small to run their own school districts have benefited from the state’s Town Tuitioning Program, which allows parents to send their children to the public or private school of their choice in a nearby town. But as Maine undergoes a statewide consolidation effort, tuitioning towns find themselves merging with others that don’t offer school choice, explained Stephen Bowen, director of education policy at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a research group based in Portland.

That is the case in Orland, where the district is consolidating with three neighboring towns—Bucksport, Prospect, and Verona Island, none of which offers school choice. All districts with fewer than 100 students are being forced to merge with districts in neighboring towns. That means the state’s existing 300 districts will condense into 80, although school choice is protected by state law.

Grassroots Victory

Bucksport is where two-thirds of Orland’s students currently attend high school, Bowen said. Consequently, Orland residents were forced to vote on whether to retain school choice in their town. School choice won, Bowen said, as a result of a grassroots effort in the community.

“That is one of the success stories,” Bowen said. “The parents in Orland put out an e-mail campaign, created Web sites, made signs and postcards—and they put it together in three or four weeks. They narrowly won.”

The same, however, can’t be said for every town. Bowen said eight have lost school choice in the mergers, though there are still choice communities statewide that, at press time, had yet to vote on a consolidation plan. All decisions must be approved by voters by the end of January, Bowen said, or the towns in question will face financial penalties from the state.

“The consolidation plans are developed by regional panels, and are then put to a vote to all of the people in the school districts to be included in each new regional district,” Bowen explained.

Ongoing Struggle

School choice exists only in small pockets in the state because the only towns with choice are those too small to run their own high schools. School choice advocates want to preserve choice for those who have it, but public school officials say their own interests should take precedence, Bowen explained. District officials say they need to build big school systems and direct all the money to them.

Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the Maine Department of Education, did not return calls, but told Orland’s weekly newspaper, The Ellsworth American, for an October 9 story, “The unit would benefit from the dollars staying in the unit. That, to me, isn’t a cost: It’s a missed opportunity.”

In order to bring in the money needed to improve public schools, Bowen said, the district wants to eliminate school choice and force students to attend the schools. But he and other school choice activists say if you make public schools better, the students will come, Bowen said.

Not only does the public not buy the district officials’ argument, Bowen said, but “real estate people tell us, anecdotally, that it is more attractive to homebuyers when you have school choice.”

Elisha Maldonado ([email protected]) writes from California.