March 16, 2012

LePage school choice proposals divisive

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Representatives of public schools said Gov. Paul LePage's proposals to expand school choice would divert millions of dollars from struggling schools and create a two-tiered system of education in Maine.

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Joe Phelan Commissioner of Education Steve Bowen, left, answers a question from Education Committee member Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, bottom right, during a public hearing on LD 1854 and LD1886 on Thursday afternoon in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

At a public hearing Thursday, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the two bills would address inequity in the ability of families to choose the best schools for their children, even if those schools are in other communities or provide religious education.

"The school your children attend is determined by lines on a map, many of which, in this state, at least, were drawn centuries ago," Bowen said in support of L.D. 1854, which would create open enrollment in Maine.

Opponents of the legislation, however, said the two bills use public money to create an education system that would not provide equal opportunity to students with disabilities or those from low-income families.

L.D. 1854, "An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students," would allow school boards to open their schools to students from other districts without requiring agreements between superintendents for individual students.

For the purposes of state aid to education, students would be counted as residents of the public school district they attend, not the one where they live.

Private schools approved to receive public funding -- there are 28 in Maine, including the 10 town academies -- also could adopt open enrollment. The resident school district would pay tuition to the private school, up to a state maximum.

Open enrollment schools may limit the number of spaces in specific grades or programs, but they must use a random selection process to fill those spaces, with no regard to academic, athletic or other skill.

Parents are responsible for providing transportation to an open enrollment school unless the school decides to do so.

Several people testifying against the bill said it will harm small and rural schools, especially those near larger schools that can offer a wider range of educational programs.

A group of students who traveled from Hermon High School said they worry for the future of their school if L.D. 1854 passes.

"Instead of allowing students to choose one school over the other, we should make sure every school is good by providing the funding they need," senior Nash Roy said, "and allow students to receive an education in the community that has raised them."

Jack Wallace, a retired teacher from Brunswick, pointed to a study of Colorado's open enrollment system, which found that it may be increasing segregation among social classes and racial groups.

In Colorado, high-income students were most likely to use open enrollment, and to transfer to even higher-income districts, and white students were more likely to transfer from diverse districts to whiter ones.

Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities said the bill "creates a real threat to the rights of students with disabilities" because of apparent gaps in the services that open enrollment schools must provide.

Augusta School Board Chair Susan Campbell, testifying on behalf of the Maine School Boards Association, said open enrollment can create a downward spiral for struggling schools and provide an advantage to schools with more resources.

"They can skim off the highest achievers or the best athletes," Campbell said. "What they leave behind, however, is a weakened district that may not have the enrollment or financial resources to provide an adequate education."

Several people at the hearing spoke in favor of competition between schools.

"Competition is not a bad thing," said Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery, who teaches at Thornton Academy in Saco. "If this lights a fire under some schools to innovate a little more, or whatever, I think that could be a plus."

(Continued on page 2)

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