As a current superintendent of schools, I am all for expanding choice options for students and families in Maine. I do not fear “choice,” nor do most of my colleagues. If done thoughtfully, choice brings a more competitive spirit to an institution that has not had to deal with much competition in the past and has become woefully complacent in many ways because of it.
That being said, I am also very aware of poverty in Maine. I grew up in Washington County. I spent four years in small schools in northern Piscataquis and Somerset counties which are no strangers to poverty themselves, and I am currently serving as superintendent of schools in RSU 3 (the Unity-Thorndike area in western Waldo County), one of the highest poverty-level districts in Maine.
The issue of poverty concerns me a great deal. To me, it gets back to the very heart of a philosophical question that was wrestled with as far back as our founding fathers — what is the purpose of public education?
Thomas Jefferson strongly believed that public education was the only way to ensure a strong democratic society by providing for an informed and intelligent ruling citizenry. Later, great thinkers such as Horace Mann and John Dewey made clear their beliefs that the only institution in America that could break the cycle of poverty for its citizens was public education.
Education is power and because of this, education becomes even more important to those who are powerless.
Gov. LePage’s push toward greater choice and options for students and families in Maine should be commended for its willingness to attack a very real problem. However, in this case, I believe the governor and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have gone too far, too fast in their rush to make sweeping changes in four years. I believe that they may have inadvertently missed a very important part of the choice discussion — poverty.
In Waldo County, the barrier of transportation goes hand-in-hand with poverty. The bill that is being suggested by Gov. LePage does not adequately address this barrier for Maine’s families who live in poverty.
I think a hypothetical example will illustrate my point: Belfast Area High School (in neighboring RSU 20) decides it wishes to open up its middle school to school choice options for students outside the district. Let’s say two students from RSU 3 are interested in attending. One student is from a family whose annual income is $100,000 per year while one student is from a family whose annual income is just $18,000. RSU 20 decides not to offer transportation to students from outside to attend their school choice options. The first student gets to go because his family can transport him — the second does not as her family can’t find a way to get her there.
I am not suggesting that this example is indicative of all possibilities; I am suggesting it does represent a possibility. Lawmakers are elected to represent the people of Maine and that means all people; most importantly, those people who may have no other voice.
I would recommend that lawmakers look closely at the underlying issues of poverty this bill does not address and amend the language to include that it be mandatory for those schools that choose to become “schools of choice” transport these children in some fashion. If charter schools can do it, so too can schools of choice.
With this adjustment in language, one of our underlying issues of poverty in Maine can be addressed — allowing all students and families who wish to make different choices, regardless of their income status, to do so. Without this additional language, I believe that the governor’s bill falls far short of its potential and may, in fact, be detrimental to the future of Maine’s youth who continue to live in poverty, and hence to Maine’s future as a state.
Heather Perry is superintendent of schools in RSU 3 in western Waldo County.