The problem in the Katahdin region is old Yankee stubbornness, and school choice could fix it.
Maine towns cling to poor schools when school choice could save rural education
A recent Washington Post article that ran in the Bangor Daily News chose the town of East Millinocket to illustrate the presumed negative effect that school choice might have on rural communities throughout the United States. This was a very poor choice as the struggle for success in K-12 education in this region could only benefit from giving parents control over their children’s education.
The Washington Post reported that “For students here, Schenck [the local high school] is really the only choice.” Unfortunately for the children in this former mill town, that is exactly the problem, and local school officials have done what they can to keep it that way.
One cannot really examine this region without considering all three of its communities: East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket. The three small towns fit along a line that is less than 10 miles across, yet they each have their own school districts, complete with a superintendent.
The smallest of the three districts has just 104 students, according to Maine Department of Education data from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent available. The two local high schools, Stearns and Schenck, are less than 7 miles apart and enroll just 280 students between them. By way of comparison, in 1982, I graduated from a Maine public high school in a senior class that was one and a half times as large as the entire enrollment of all grades in these two high schools put together.
The three school districts combined have seen enrollment decline by 31 percent over the last decade, and they will lose nearly that much again over the next 10 years. Today, the three districts include just 823 students in grades K-12, yet they retain two high schools and three superintendents. By contrast, Bangor, the nearest city 60 miles away, has just one public high school, one superintendent and about 3,800 students — five times as many as its northern neighbors.
Bangor’s lone superintendent of schools is responsible for more students in any one of its grade levels than the average of the three Millinockett-area superintendents have in their entire districts.
Just combining the two Millinocket-area high schools would allow the region to eliminate one heating bill, one electric bill, one principal’s salary, one custodial staff, one lunch room staff, a handful of teacher salaries, administrative staff, and buses and drivers, and save annually on maintenance, repairs, renovations and more. Combining the three districts into one would save still more.
In the 2015-16 school year, the average Maine school district spent 60.5 percent of its annual budget in four categories defined as “instruction” by the Maine Department of Education. This number, in turn, is below the national average (more than 63 percent). Combined, the three Millinocket-area districts average just 53.7 percent. This representation of money spent to teach students is lower in these districts because of the high spending in other areas. For example, the three districts average three times as much spending on system administration than the state average and 42 percent more on facilities.
If the three districts became one and merged the two high schools, all of this money wasted on redundant administrators and buildings could be poured into the classroom in the form of teacher salaries, technology and modernization, making their students far more competitive after graduation.
While this seems like what Mainers call a “no-brainah,” the people of East Millinocket have yet to see the advantage. Instead, they have stubbornly resisted even having a conversation about merging the school districts, trapping their young people in a failing environment. East Millinocket’s students score below the state average in English, math and science, while 75 percent of Schenck graduates who went on to a Maine Community College needed remedial work in math, English, or both at their own expense.
While ignoring this viable choice for this “choice-less” community, the East Millinocket superintendent told The Washington Post that “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town. There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”
Setting aside the obvious facts that the creation of schools follows the establishment and growth of a community, not the other way around, and a quality school system is among the best lures to attract young families, this argument ignores the importance of the regional community over a focus on just one of its three towns and fails to recognize that the first question any young couple asks a real estate agent is: “How good are the schools?”
In 2015, the largest — or perhaps least tiny — of the three school districts, Millinocket, extended an offer to its tiny neighbors to send their students the six miles over to Millinocket, essentially combining the three districts in practice, if not in name. The offer of $8,267 per student would have reduced the cost paid by these neighboring districts by about $4,000 per student. The savings would have been the equivalent of writing every man, woman and child in poverty-stricken East Millinocket a check for a thousand dollars — every year — without a reduction in the quality of their K-12 education.
The reply from the other two districts, however, was to say that “they are not interested in sending their students to Millinocket. They instead want to keep schools open in their own communities.” No discussion, no dialogue, just “no.” This was the second time in two years the offer had been extended and rebuffed, despite the fact that combining the districts would save money and likely improve the quality of education available to their children.
Given the obstinacy of those who refuse to even discuss finding educational efficiencies with their neighbors, and the statutory inability of the state of Maine to apply pressure on the communities to act in their best interests, the very real possibility of school choice might be just the thing to finally force the sides to come together for the betterment of all. Under the status-quo, however, the opposite is true. Despite the stance against efficiencies, the state funding formula for schools will send $2.3 million to East Millinocket this year, two-thirds of its total school budget, effectively rewarding and subsidizing local officials’ intransigence.
In other words, taxpayers across Maine are paying more to educate East Millinocket children than they need to because local school officials refuse to use those dollars efficiently.
By declining to give their young people more educational options, and refusing to open new opportunities to their children, school officials in East Millinocket are trapping their kids in an educational system that could be more effective and less expensive. Giving students and their parents school choice may be the only way that young people can escape this local commitment to lower quality schools, short of moving out of the East Millinocket School District.
Denying parents the right to make the best educational choices for their children is the opposite of what our democracy is supposed to be about. Parents should have the greatest say in what is best for their child, not the government. By closing off avenues to better opportunities the government in East Millinocket, in the form of the school board, is acting as if it has a monopoly on what is best for the region’s young people and doing what it can to prevent giving students and their parents a choice at a better future.
Rather than a model of the bad things school choice might do to rural schools, East Millinocket is an example of why school choice is sorely needed, if only as a lever to move some local school officials off their stubborn adherence to a wasteful set of ideas. The specter of giving school choice to parents might finally break the impasse preventing better education in the Katahdin region and other communities across Maine and the United States.
Dr. Thomas A. Desjardin served as the senior policy adviser for education for Gov. Paul LePage in 2013 and 2014 and the acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education in 2014 and 2015. He has taught at several colleges and universities in Maine and elsewhere.