PROSPECT, Maine — While Gov. Paul LePage’s school choice legislation was stopped at the committee level in March, the four proponents of school choice who gathered at Fort Knox State Park on Tuesday said the fight isn’t over.
The event was organized to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman, a wildly influential economist and advocate for school choice, a policy that allows parents to enroll their child in the school of their choice, regardless of its location.
“We’re always going to be supportive and want to bring forward more legislation for school choice,” said Carol Weston, executive director of Maine’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which organized the event.
Weston said the event had not been advertised because she and her organization were busy preparing for a Thursday trip to Washington, D.C., for the sixth annual Defending the American Dream summit.
LePage proclaimed Tuesday to be Milton Friedman Day, saying in a news release that “Maine’s educational goals align with Friedman’s vision: All children should have the right to the highest-quality schools possible.”
LePage’s legislation, “An Act To Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools,” failed to pass the Education Committee in March. It would have allowed schools to become “schools of choice” and accept students from outside their districts. Students could be enrolled in these schools without needing permission from their home district and the local taxpayers dollars would go with them. The committee opted to study the idea and come back next session with new recommendations.
Despite the school choice bill’s unknown future, attendees at Fort Knox were celebrating a victory for school choice as two public charter schools — Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley and the Cornville Regional Charter School — cleared their final state hurdle on Tuesday and are now set to open in the fall.
Judith Brown, chairwoman of Maine Association for Charter Schools, was at Fort Knox and said the charter schools were an important piece of school choice, which would provide incentives to traditional public school districts to improve or risk losing students to charter schools.
“This is going to give people some more options. It’s a start,” said Bill Brown, Judith Brown’s husband and a member of the charter school association.
Judith Brown and Weston repeated a common refrain among school choice proponents in Maine: that greedy superintendents are the enemies of school choice. In Maine, a student can attend an out-of-district school if both superintendents agree, and that doesn’t happen often. Weston said that’s because superintendents don’t want to lose the taxpayer dollars that come with each student. LePage also has blasted superintendents for their opposition to his package of education reform.
“Superintendents are looking at their bottom lines, not at the interests of their students,” Weston said.
Paul Stearns is superintendent of School Administrative District 4 and president of the Maine State Superintendents Association. He agreed Tuesday that superintendents care a great deal about money.
“The governor has taken us to task for caring about money,” he said. “But money translates to programs and opportunities for students.”
School choice and charter schools may provide great opportunities for students, Stearns said, but it likely only would be those students with affluent parents because those students’ families are more likely to be able to arrange for their child to attend school far from home.
“Students in my district depend very much on our transportation system to get to school,” he said. “The ones that don’t, the affluent students, are the ones who are more likely to be able to head in another direction. The expense of transportation alone would be prohibitive for the others.”
Stearns and Weston agreed on one thing: Both are confident that school choice will be back on the legislative agenda when the next session begins in January.
“The governor and the commissioner of education have been very clear that this is important to them,” Stearns said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.