Are Maine law changes for students transferring to districts in which they don’t live a step toward school choice?

Posted Oct. 24, 2013, at 6:39 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2013, at 12:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Recent law changes for families who want to transfer students from one school district to another, including one in which the student doesn’t live, went into effect earlier this month amid what the Department of Education has called a steady increase in transfer appeals that demonstrate the importance of giving students a choice about where they are educated.

Prior to the implementation of the new law on Oct. 9, which was enacted by the Legislature and became law without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature earlier this year, parents needed superintendents from both affected school districts to agree to the transfer. If the administrators didn’t agree, the applicants had the option of appealing the decision to the state’s education commissioner.

The new law adds another aspect to a superintendent’s decision in that it requires him or her to explain to a family why the transfer would not be in the best interest of the student. It also allows parents and superintendents to bring appeals to the state Board of Education within 10 days if they are not satisfied with the decision of the education commissioner.

During the 2012-13 school year, according to the Department of Education, more than 1,500 transfers were approved by superintendents. The DOE does not track how many transfer requests were denied, though 143 appeals have already been filed to the department during the current school year and only four have been denied.

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said in a prepared statement that these situations sometimes create difficult decisions for superintendents but that the changes to the law will preserve a focus on what is in the best interest of every student.

“We all should want every student, no matter their unique circumstances, to be successful in school and if a transfer is going to increase that likelihood, then that transfer is in the student’s best interest, period,” said Rier. “While for the majority of Maine’s 185,000 students, the best choice for them is to attend school where they live, that is not the case for every student.”

Common reasons for parents requesting transfers include bullying, personal family circumstances or a medical condition that requires frequent out-of-town appointments.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and Maine School Superintendents Association, said her organization supported the law change throughout the legislative process.

“We’re pleased,” said Brown. “I think there is a new benefit to everybody involved here. A parent going through this process will now have the information communicated to them about why a denial is being made. I think most superintendents did that anyway.”

The Department of Education framed the law changes as a victory for school choice in Maine, an initiative that LePage has pursued since taking office. One of his most high-profile victories on this front was the implementation in 2011 of Maine’s first-ever law that allows charter schools.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents most public school teachers, said that Maine students have adequate choices, though in general her organization has opposed many of LePage’s school choice initiatives.

“Although we don’t know the number of requests that have been made for this school year we know that 143 have been denied by one or both superintendents and have been appealed to the commissioner of education,” she wrote in response to emailed questions. “All but four of those have been overturned by the commissioner so the students can attend the school of their choice, and those four denials are for unknown reasons but are apparently not in the best interest of the student. The result is, of the 185,000 students in Maine’s schools, all but four are in the school of their choice, most in their local community school.”

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story requires correction. Changes in transfer policy are the result of changes to state law, not Department of Education rules. The Department of Education has seen a steady increase in transfer decision appeals, not attempts. The law changes were not signed by Gov. Paul LePage. Instead, he let them become law without his signature.

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