AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is among 17 governors who recently signed proclamations declaring next week as National School Choice Week, a sign that Maine’s governor could be ready to announce an initiative that would expand school choice in this state.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor is scheduled to make a major education announcement next week, but would not confirm any details.
It’s likely that school choice will be a part of either that announcement or a separate announcement in the coming weeks.
LePage’s education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, effectively endorsed school choice during a roll out of his own education plan earlier this week, which called for, among other things, better flexibility for students. Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin confirmed Thursday that school choice legislation will be submitted this session.
Bowen’s previous employer, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, has advocated for expanding school choice, which refers to a broad policy initiative that expands the ability of students and their parents to allow kids to attend schools across municipal or district lines.
The concept is not universally accepted by administrators and educators, though, and has been a hot button issue in other states.
The Maine Education Association — the state’s teachers’ union — is opposed to unrestricted school choice for a variety of reasons, according to spokesman Jon Kosinski. The biggest reason, he said, is that it would create an increased burden on local districts and would generate uncertainty about enrollment.
Another problem is that school choice could allow for taxpayer dollars to be used to send children to private and perhaps religious schools, Kosinski said.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sits on the Education Committee, said neither he nor any other Democrats have been approached about the governor’s education plans but he said school choice is dangerous.
“This week, Commissioner Bowen put forth a strategic plan, which is something I’ve wanted and many others have wanted for years,” Alfond said. “And there is tremendous energy and momentum behind that plan. To add school choice or a voucher program for the state, which is one of the most divisive education policies across the country, would be detrimental to that plan.”
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, co-chairs the Education Committee. He said if a school choice bill was introduced it would certainly generate a “robust discussion.”
“I think equity would be the biggest thing,” he said. “We would need to balance the public good with individual students’ rights.”
National School Choice Week is billed as a series of events to shine a spotlight on the need for better providing educational options for children.
The other governors who signed proclamations on National School Choice Week were: Robert Bentley of Alabama, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Nathan Deal of Georgia, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Gary Herbert of Utah, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Janice Brewer of Arizona, Terry Branstad of Iowa, Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Matt Mead of Wyoming and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
All except Hickenlooper and O’Malley are Republicans.
Gov. LePage already has been successful in bringing charter schools to Maine with the passage of legislation last spring. None have actually opened and the Legislature is preparing to take up a bill that addresses some technical concerns about the original legislation, but many regard charter schools as the first step toward school choice.
Charter schools are publicly funded but most often privately run. They often focus on a specific topic such as fine arts or natural sciences but must meet state and federal academic standards. They do, however, have more flexibility in curriculum, budgeting and other issues.
No bills are before the Legislature that deal with school choice, but the initiative could be included in an Education Department bill or a bill from the governor’s office.