Good, bad news for state’s school choice tradition

Posted Nov. 23, 2008, at 8:11 p.m.

For supporters of school choice, there was good news and bad news on Election Day.

There was good news in the town of Orland, for instance, where a group of concerned residents, organizing at the last minute and working against a public school establishment that opposed them, pulled off an unlikely and heroic victory, saving school choice for at least some of Orland’s students. Traditionally, the majority of the town’s high schoolers have attended nearby Bucksport High School, but about a third of Orland students typically choose to go to high school in towns such as Ellsworth, Blue Hill, Brewer, and Bangor.

Orland’s school choice policy was seen by some, particularly Bucksport officials, as being a barrier to consolidation. So an effort was undertaken to eliminate choice through citizen’s initiative.

Luckily, a dedicated group of parents and community members launched a well-organized Internet and mail campaign to save school choice in Orland. They prevailed narrowly.

Much the same happened in the Cumberland County town of Raymond. Defenders of the education establishment there decided they wanted to eliminate school choice in Raymond in anticipation of its proposed merger with neighboring Windham. As with Orland, a hastily organized group of choice supporters rushed to the defense, and choice was preserved by Raymond residents by 2-1 majority.

The residents of Etna and Dixmont were not so lucky. The plan for their merger with SAD 48, approved by voters on Election Day, put an end to a waiver program that has, in the past, allowed students to attend a high school of their choice. During the 2007-08 school year, almost a quarter of the high schoolers from Etna and Dixmont attended a school other than Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. Now every student in the two towns will be forced to attend Nokomis, which was recently identified by the University of Southern Maine as one of Maine’s “lower performing high schools.”

Students in other Bangor-area towns may suffer the same fate. The plan to merge SAD 23 with the Hermon school system would eliminate choice in Carmel and Levant in much the same way choice was eliminated for Etna and Dixmont. The future of school choice in towns such as Orrington, Holden, Clifton and Eddington is unclear, as the details of their proposed merger with Brewer have not been made final.

There was once reason to hope that Maine’s long-standing tradition of school choice, so prevalent in the Bangor area, would not be a casualty of the school district consolidation effort. The consolidation law says the “preservation of opportunities for choice of schools” is the “declared policy of the state.” The Department of Education’s Web site claims that “communities that have choice for their students now will continue to have choice after reorganization.”

Since the reorganization law was enacted, however, school choice has been lost in the towns of Arrowsic, Phippsburg, West Bath, Woolwich, Durham, Pownal, Etna and Dixmont. The 780 high schoolers in those eight towns attended 22 different high schools last year. As a result of consolidation votes, none of the students in these towns will have any choice of schools whatsoever in the years to come.

Of course, families that can afford to do so may send their kids to private schools in response to the loss of school choice. Others may try to move to a town with a better school or a town such as Orland that has preserved school choice. Families of means always have had school choice and always will.

But Maine is one the few states in the nation that, in some communities at least, offers school choice to all students. Regardless of background or income, students in choice communities have the opportunity to attend some of the state’s best schools.

This access to choice, however, was and is a threat to the public school establishment. As students and families in choice communities have fled Maine’s lower-performing schools, the response from too many school districts has been simply to eliminate choice, rather than improve the educational product they offer.

Families across Maine have opportunities for school choice that are enjoyed by residents of very few other states. Indeed, choice supporters all over the nation are fighting for the very school choice options that have been put in such grave danger here in Maine. What happened in Orland and Raymond, though, proves that choice can be saved if choice supporters organize, mobilize, and ready themselves to face powerful opposition in the battles to save school choice that are yet to come.

Stephen Bowen directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He is a former teacher and state legislator.

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