June 18, 2018
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School choice lifts ‘tyranny of town line’

By Stephen Bowen

The Bangor area is home to a number of communities in which parents and families have school choice options, so the Feb. 9 BDN editorial describing school choice as “dangerous” was something of a surprise.

More surprising, though, was the paper’s embrace of one of the most troubling arguments against allowing families some say over the educational opportunities to which their children have access. Too many parents, the BDN argued, “aren’t intelligent enough” to make the right decisions about where their children should go to school.

The BDN attempts to explain why choice is risky by employing the example of a latte shop. In a free market economy, free people decide to bring a product, such as lattes, to the marketplace. The BDN rightly suggests that the latte shop with the best products at the best value will almost certainly prevail over its competitors, but reminds readers darkly that consumers, in their ignorance, are just as likely to buy overpriced and undrinkable lattes as not, because their limited capacity for rational decision-making can be easily overwhelmed by the “color of the shop’s walls” and other “nonsubstantive factors.”

The same is true, the BDN argues, with parents and families.

“Parents with intelligence” the editorial continues, will “get their children to better schools,” while those “struggling to keep a car running,” who “must be at work on time” and who “aren’t intelligent enough” to evaluate the relative merits of various schools would make the kinds of decisions about their children’s future that such people always make, which is the wrong ones.

Meanwhile, the BDN neglects to mention that school choice already exists widely. The more affluent among us — those able to afford private schools or those who can move to a district with better schools — already have school choice, have always had it, and always will have it.

In dozens of Maine communities, including many in the Bangor area, parents and families already have a number of school choice opportunities which, strangely enough, they have proven fully capable of navigating successfully. With the passage of public charter school legislation last year, new school choice options will soon be joining the many already in place across the state.

The BDN did not go to the effort of actually describing the school choice proposal in the governor’s reform package. Based on a model found in 17 other states, the governor is proposing to allow school districts to open their enrollment to students outside their district boundaries. Schools and districts could determine the number of students they would accept, in order to effectively manage enrollments, and students across Maine — not just the wealthy or those living where choice is allowed today — would have more educational options from which to choose.

Providing families with such choices, the BDN argues, is not simply wrong, but “dangerous.” Better, it would seem, to have the educational options a student enjoys determined by their street address, as is the practice today. Remember, it is not as though the highly intelligent people in whom the BDN places such faith are the ones determining where children go to school; it is determined by a line on a map.

Gov. LePage proposed last week that we take a significant step to overcome this tyranny of the town line by providing families with more schooling options outside the school district in which they live. He does not share, and neither do I, the belief, expressed by this newspaper, that Maine’s families would be largely incapable of making the right choices for their children if given that opportunity.

Generations of experience in cities and towns across Maine proves otherwise.

Many of us drive old cars and struggle on cold, snowy mornings to get to work on time, yet we still do everything we can to make the right choices for our kids. It is time we had a system of schooling that understands that and more importantly, celebrates it.

Stephen Bowen is commissioner of Maine’s Department of Education.

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