Maine Rejects School Choice Expansion

Published June 20, 2013

Maine lawmakers shot down a bill that would have helped children from low-income families board at public charter schools and take public money to private, religious schools that meet state standards.

Legislative Document 1529, sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason (R-Lisbon Falls), aimed to expand the current “town tuitioning” program already present in both Maine and Vermont. Currently only ten charter schools can operate in Maine, under tight restrictions: local school boards must approve and monitor new charter schools.

The expansion, which Gov. Paul LePage proposed, would have let higher-education institutions monitor charter schools, and remove the limit of ten. The dramatic addition was allowing students to take government money to private schools by funding students, not schools. Families could choose to send their children to either a public or a private school. The bill would also have assisted students with transportation to boarding charter schools.

Although town tuitioning, or using local tax dollars to pay students’ way to particular schools outside rural counties that have no schools, has been legal since the late 1800s, typically only wealthy families can afford a religious education, said Amanda Clark, an education analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Religious schools participated in town tuitioning until 1981, when the legislature made that illegal, said Jason Bedrick, a Cato Institute policy analyst.

‘Bad Timing’
Some analysts gave positive forecast for LD 1529, like Clark. Others, such as Ken Capron at the Maine Center for Constitutional Studies, believed it would not pass.

An idea like this “has never come this far in Maine’s history,” Clark said.

If the bill had passed, Capron said, courts would likely have ruled it constitutional, but lawmakers “simply don’t have the support they need” to pass school choice legislation. He says “the timing is bad” because for the past two years both houses of the legislature have been controlled by anti-school choice Democrats.

But Clark says Democrats should love the proposal because it “allows economically disadvantaged children to have equal opportunity in education by permitting them to use their allocated dollars to enroll in the school of their choice.”

The bill would have sent private schools more money, Bedrick said, but it might ultimately cost students because schools that receive state money would have to comply with more mandates. The bill requires participating private religious schools to “comply with standards applicable to other private schools,” but does not specify what those standards are. Maine does not require accreditation for private schools.

“Programs that utilize tax dollars and are administered by the government are more likely to come with increased regulations than school choice programs that rely on private donations,” Bedrick said.

The education committee rejected LD 1529 11-2 in May, then both legislative houses rejected the bill in June.


Image by DeepCWind.