School Choice issues fill the op-ed pages


In less than a week, two separate op-eds on school choice have appeared in Maine’s two largest newspapers.
Last Thursday, my piece on the loss of school choice in the Bath area appeared in the Portland Press Herald. Today, an excellent op-ed by two parents in the Etna-Dixmont area appears in the Bangor Daily News.
This renewed interest in school choice is coming at exactly the right time. Now that the legislature has enacted a “fix” to the consolidation law, reorganization committees across the state are going back to work, under pressure to get consolidation plans ready for approval by the Commissioner of Education and local voters.
Supporters of school choice should be wary.
Why? Because even though choice is nominally protected by the reorganization law – under the law, those towns that have choice now will continue to have it – there is reason to fear that eliminating school choice may become a precondition imposed on those towns that have choice as they look to merge with towns that do not have choice.
The Etna-Dixmont case, about which the parents from those two towns write so passionately in today’s BDN, is a good example. According to published reports, the reorganization committee there is looking to end school choice for Etna and Dixmont’s MSAD 38 as a condition of its joining with neighboring MSAD 48 in Newport. Though the majority of high schoolers in MSAD 38 attend Nokomis High School In Newport, state data shows that students there attend five other high schools as well, including John Bapst, Mt. View, Bangor High, Brewer High, and Hermon High. The school board is apparently split on the issue, with some supporting keeping choice while others seem happy to force all MSAD 38 kids to attend Nokomis whether it meets their educational needs or not.
Is this legal? I’m not a lawyer, but it sure doesn’t seem as though it is. The reorganization law is very clear that “if the option of attending a public school in another school administrative unit or a private school … was available to students in the previous education unit, that option continues to be available…after the municipality’s inclusion in the regional school unit.”
Those opposing choice are apparently arguing that MSAD 38 is NOT a choice community to begin with, because the district seems to think that it has an “exclusive contract” with Nokomis that is binding on all students unless they get a waiver from the the MSAD 38 school board. This policy seems to contradict state law, which says that “Students whose parents reside in a school administrative unit which contracts for school privileges under section 2701 may attend the contract school.” That is they MAY attend, but can’t be forced to by either the state or the school district. Opponents of choice in the Etna-Dixmont area evidently feel otherwise.
Legal hairsplitting like this, intended to put an end to a generations-old tradition of school choice, is likely to become more common as reorganization efforts move forward. The time for supporters of school choice to organize and dig in for a fight, therefore, is now.