September 18, 2012

Maine school-choice task force begins work on proposal by identifying goals

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A work group formed by the Legislature met for the first time Monday to start developing a school choice proposal to send back to lawmakers in January.

The group has to hammer out a lot of details about funding, transportation and education for low-income and special-needs students, but much of the discussion at the first meeting revolved around the public policy goals behind the push for school choice.

Winslow High School social sciences teacher Mike Thurston, representing the Maine Education Association, said he has served on multiple task forces and this is the first one "where there was an assumption going in that this was a good idea."

"I think I need to know what problem, number one, that school choice is going to specifically address, and why is expanding school choice a model that's going to address that problem?" Thurston said.

Other work group members representing Maine's education associations questioned whether expanding school choice is necessary, while members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage said it would introduce competition and increase options for parents.

Earlier this year, LePage proposed an open enrollment program that would have allowed schools to open their doors to students living outside district boundaries, without the superintendent agreements that are now required for each student wanting to transfer. State funding would follow students who change districts.

When the bill reached the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee late in the session, committee members said there were too many questions about how open enrollment would affect school districts and students. They amended the bill to create the work group and gave it a Jan. 14 deadline to report back to the education committee with a model for school choice.

The education associations appointed Thurston, Waterville High School Principal Don Reiter, Scarborough school board member Jacquelyn Perry, Dexter Superintendent Kevin Jordan, Auburn Superintendent Katherine Grondin and Falmouth special education administrator Polly Crowell.

LePage appointed Wanda Lincoln, program coordinator for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension; Amanda Clark, research associate for the Maine Heritage Policy Center; Heidi Sampson, a homeschooling leader and State Board of Education member from Alfred; Matt Hoidal, executive director of Camp Sunshine; Tim Walton, a lobbyist for Cianbro Corp.; and Jonathan Nass, senior policy adviser to LePage.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen acknowledged on Monday that some members may find they can't support the model the work group produces, especially if they represent associations that oppose the concept.

Bowen said reasons for pursuing school choice are important, but the work group's charge is to figure out how to do it -- not why.

"The education committee and the broader Legislature that ultimately enacted this and the governor believe that there is some public policy interest that is served by providing some school choice options to kids," Bowen said. "And they didn't go into any further detail on which kids or how many kids or who gets to decide or how it's funded or any of the rest of that."

Thurston said public education is a right and that the state should focus on making all schools great.

"Running it on a business kind of model ensures that some schools are going to get better, but some students are going to lose also," he said.

Sampson, on the other hand, spoke in favor of competition and said parents need to be empowered in the public school system.

"To speak to the issue of competition, I think it's healthy," she said. "And yes, not everybody's a winner, but that's where the parents come into play."

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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