Is school choice being preserved as school districts consolidate? Not really.
The controversial school reorganization law that passed last year was supposed to preserve school choice for those communities that had it. The Department of Education’s reorganization website says clearly that “Communities that have choice for their students now will continue to have choice after reorganization.” In fact, the reorganization law itself says that “the preservation of opportunities for choice of schools” is “the declared policy of the state.”
What is really happening? A report we’ll have out soon describes how school choice options are being lost as a result of reorganization. Here are a few examples of what we found:
• The commissioner has already approved a planned merger of MSAD 16, Monmouth, Richmond, and Dresden. Under the plan, high school choice for Dresden is to be limited to only 15% of high school students, with the remaining 85% to have no choice but to attend Hall-Dale high school in MSAD 16. While approximately that percent of Dresden’s over 100 high school students attend Hall-Dale today, it was not always so. According to data on the state’s School Profiles website, as recently as the fall of 2004 only 71% of Dresden’s students attended high school in MSAD 16, with the remainder attending five other high schools. The commissioner’s approval of a plan that so drastically limits school choice seems inconsistent with both the law and her previous statements regarding the preservation of school choice.
• In a February 1, 2008 letter to the Reorganization Planning Committee developing the Freeport/Pownal/Durham RSU, the commissioner stated that she was confident that their plan would be approved pending legislative action on LD 1932. She congratulated them on being among the first RPC groups to produce a plan that “meets the policy objectives and parameters of the law.”
The March 11, 2008 version of their plan, however, would ultimately eliminate school choice for both Durham and Pownal. Under the provisions of the plan, school choice opportunities are to be essentially “grandfathered” for students already taking advantage of high school choice, and for those currently in grades 6-8 in Durham and in grade 8 in Pownal. Once these students are through the system, school choice is to be eliminated. Today, the over 200 high school students in Durham attend seven different high schools, and as recently as the fall of 2004, they attended eleven different high schools. Given a choice today, only two Durham high school students attend Freeport High School, the very school to which every Durham student is to be sent in a few short years. As recently as 2004, the almost 70 high school students from Pownal attended seven different high schools, despite Pownal’s unique and legally questionable practice of paying only half the state tuition rate for private schools. The proximity of these two towns to so many high school options has made them among the best communities in Maine for school choice. Choice for students in the two towns will be gone in a few short years, however, despite the fact that the regionalization law guarantees its preservation.
• A grandfathering provision is also being put into place in the RSU being developed for MSAD 23 and Hermon. As recently as the fall of 2004, high school students from MSAD 23 attended six different high schools under a “waiver” system. Under the provisions of the reorganization plan, however, existing waivers are to be grandfathered, after which time no more waivers will be granted, thus eliminating school choice options entirely for the almost 300 MSAD 23 students who have that option today. As if to slide the question of school choice completely off the table, under the “school choice” heading of the reorganization plan the plan’s authors simply wrote “not applicable.”
• That same strategy is being employed by opponents of choice in MSAD 38 and MSAD 48, who are looking to form an RSU there. Like MSAD 23, MSAD 38 has historically allowed choice using a waiver system. As a result, the 125 high school students from MSAD 38 currently attend six different high schools. The reorganization plan under discussion there would eliminate such waivers, forcing all MSAD 38 high school students to attend Nokomis high school in MSAD 48, with which MSAD 38 has historically had a tuitioning contract. Choice supporters there have threatened lawsuits to block the proposed loss of choice.
We’ll soon release a report that goes into more detail on what exactly is going on here, but the important thing at this point is that those in school choice communities and those supporters of school choice across Maine need to be keeping a very careful eye on reorganization developments. In all likelihood, we’ll see more examples of threats to choice as the district consolidation effort moves forward.