Redistricting May Hurt Choice in Maine

Published March 1, 2008

Maine’s education system is in the midst of big changes, and families enjoying school choice may turn out to be major victims of the process.

The state budget passed in June 2007 called for an overhaul of the school system, including consolidating districts to reduce their number from 152 to 80 by next year. The overhaul plan, which threatens the loss of administrative resources and thus school closures, has sparked calls for its repeal and petitions for a referendum.

Ignoring Other Issues

The focus on district consolidation has stolen the spotlight from other important issues affecting the school system, according to a study released in December by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

One of those issues is school choice, which students in rural districts have enjoyed as part of the state’s Town Tuitioning Program since 1954. A handful of such programs, which give rural students without their own school districts vouchers to attend the public or private school of their choice, exist throughout New England. The vouchers can even be used out of state, so long as the school of choice is not affiliated with a religion.

School choice advocates say they fear some parents will lose the option to send their child to a school of their choice once redistricting is complete.

Maintaining Choice

“Our concern is that the robust school choice options in certain towns will suffer,” said Stephen Bowen, an education policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center and author of the report.

“When you regionalize, some kids will be able to keep school choice and some won’t,” Bowen noted. “We want to help kids in the latter regions get choice. The current system is unsustainable because it’s not fair that some kids have choice and others will not.

“We are fearful that redistricting will take choice away altogether,” Bowen continued. “We have talked to other school choice advocates about this danger, and everyone is on high alert.”

Closing Small Schools?

The redistricting effort may hurt small private schools. Creating larger districts will limit eligibility for the Town Tuitioning Program and may lead to declining enrollments in such schools.

“Because every district will likely have a comparable high school for children to attend, people will not be able to send their kids to schools outside of the district unless the superintendent approves it, which is called superintendent’s choice,” said Frank Heller, coordinator of the Maine School Choice Coalition, a Brunswick-based organization aimed at preserving and promoting school choice.

“I doubt that will happen often, which will reduce the availability of school choice,” Heller said.

“My thought is that the regional system will not be as loyal to the independent schools as the smaller districts were,” Heller explained. “School choice has been prized in the state of Maine for a long time, and nobody knows how it will work out in the regional system.”

Pursuing Standards

The report also notes the overhaul plan focuses little on making sure students are meeting state standards.

“Reorganization is important to talk about, but there are other things that are important too,” Bowen said. “For example, student education standards have been in place for 10 years, but we still don’t have a statewide assessment system monitoring them. The new legislative session began a few weeks ago and, again, they are focusing on the redistricting issue.

“The attention needs to turn away from the constant bean-counting and look further into the issues,” Bowen continued.

Helping Unions

The redistricting law also has generated concern over the loss of elected school officials and apprehension about a potential exodus of high-quality superintendents in response to the reduction in jobs. Bowen’s report suggests forming Regional School Unions might be a way to assist teachers and provide a collaborative resource for administrators.

“We want to cut down on spending, but we are also concerned that the larger districts will be less accountable,” Bowen said. “We figure having the collaborative efforts of Regional School Unions would help [compensate for] the sharp decrease of administrative resources and help reduce costs in areas like transportation, which could be taken on as a union function.”

Bowen says the idea has received some attention from legislators and could become a bill after the redistricting uproar dies down.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Beyond School District Reorganization: A Vision for Education Reform,” by Stephen Bowen, Maine Heritage Policy Center, December 2007: