School Choice Meeting Summary - Oct. 1, 2012


Commissioner Bowen: We’re getting into developing some type of a model. We’re not policymakers—we’re for advisory. We’re going to give our work to the Legislature. We’ll make sure people’s thoughts are reflected in the report.

There were two choice bills that came from the Governor. One bill, which wasn’t really part of this piece of legislation, would have eliminated the law that prevents tuition dollars from going to religious schools. The law change that prevented public dollars from going to religious schools was made in 1980. The law still remains that you cannot be a religious school and receive tuition money.

The second law involved letting kids choose their schools if their district could not offer them a school. You can see where those communities are, clustered around school academies. There are very few in southern Maine.

This isn’t a question of creating school choice—this is expanding school choice. We looked at some other states and explored the option of open-enrollment models. Under this proposal, school boards will be given the authority to decide to become an open-enrollment district or school. It could accept students from outside its borders. It could also decide how many students it’s able to accept into that program.

Students in any district across Maine could choose to attend that open-enrollment school. The district from which the student comes could not prohibit the student from leaving there and going to an open-enrollment school.

We’re trying to find more effective management of the movement of kids. There are issues around the superintendent transfer. There are some flaws with this program because there isn’t really a policy there, and districts aren’t allowed to organize policy around superintendent transfers. They don’t have any statutory rights under current law that allow them to do anything.

With the open-enrollment model, schools can’t handpick students. We borrowed the process that the charter schools use. If a school has space for “x” number of kids and that number of open-enrollment kids applied to the school, then fine, they can take all the kids. But if they more students apply than they have space for, then they must randomly select them through a lottery. Nor could schools say, “You have special education issue, so we’re not going to take you.”

Schools and districts must elect to participate in the open-enrollment program.

The problem that we struggled with was whether we provide transportation for open-enrollment students

We decided that each open-enrollment school is going to determine whether it will provide transportation for open-enrollment students or not. We weren’t going to compel or prohibit schools on that issue.

The other thing is that districts are making a commitment to those open-enrollment kids. If the school says they can take the student when that student’s a freshman, they are committing to carrying that student through to graduation.

We talked about schools that charge higher than the state subsidy price--were they out of this program or in? The answer was in.

Katie: Are you eliminating superintendent agreements?

Commissioner: No, not at all. I don’t think we wanted to tinker with the superintendent agreement language because we still want that to be an option—because we’re not making districts participate in school choice.

There needs to be an application process for students to open enroll. Ideally by March, the schools would have a good idea of what they were getting into for the following school year. Students can also apply to more than one open-enrollment school, and they will be notified in April of their acceptance.

The siblings of students who are enrolled in an open-enrollment school are entitled to enroll before anyone else. Families would have an inside track.

There’s a “residence” clause in this language. We didn’t want districts to be sending money back and forth. For enrollment and subsidy purposes, the students basically “move” to this district. They will be considered a resident until graduation or until they enroll in another school.

Committee member: Does a student have any right to go back to the school in their home district?

Deborah Friedman: No, they have to stay for the course of the year. The rights that you have are based on being a resident of the other school district. You weren’t changing enrollment—you were changing residency.

Commissioner: If a kid is coming to Waterville from a district that’s not an open-enrollment district, they can’t open-enroll back.

Mike Thurston: Would it be possible for a student to go to four high schools in four years?

Commissioner: It would be possible for them to go to 4 open-enrollment high schools, yes.

We wanted to figure out a way to give students school choice, but not create mayhem. The residency thing solved some issues and complicated others. We want that student to transfer to another district, get picked up by the October count, and state funding will follow that student eventually.

Mike Thurston: There has to be some legal implications surrounding that.

Commissioner: We didn’t want to create something that was entirely different with application processes, etc. We were trying to take a case-at-a-time model (the Superintendents’ Agreement) and create something a little more systemic. We want to replace that model with a program.

If a school takes 10 kids, those 10 kids are yours until graduation. Schools need to have some foresight and ask, “Do we think, budgetarily, that we’re going to be able to withstand this addition to our enrollment?”

The superintendent agreement stands, whether or not that student is an open-enrollment student.

Jackie: Number one: why don’t we try to tighten up or improve on legislation for superintendent agreements? Number two: the thing that’s eluding me is how is the student going to benefit if the student is miserable when he or she gets to the new school? I don’t see who else will benefit—certainly not our children. When I sit on the school board and I pass legislation, so to speak, I always think about how this is going to affect the students in the classroom. How is this going to enhance their education beyond what we can do now with superintendent agreements?

Commissioner: This document we’re looking at was the bill we put in last session. The Governor wanted us to put a group together and go through this. This is really for your information purposes so you know what we originally took to the Legislature. Believe me, I get that this needs work. The reason that this panel has been put together is to take existing choice options that we have and make them better.

I was up at Good Will-Hinckley this morning, and there were two students who spoke at the presentation. One student got up and said, “I like working with my hands.” And then there was a student there from York who said, “I really like my school, I’m not struggling in my school, I just think this is going to be a better fit for me.” It will be in their best interests, and their families’ best interests.

This will work much more like a charter school process, where you apply. It ends up being a random approach.

The Legislature has said, “We want a program here to expand opportunities.” Structurally, how do we get there? Right now, the only option for students not in a school choice community or for those who can’t afford to move is a superintendents’ transfer.

Keeping perspective is important. We have 188,000 kids going to school in Maine, and the overwhelming majority is fine where they are.

The Legislature did expand choice somewhat with LD 1854 that did pass. It isn’t just superintendent agreements at this point.

Paul: You alluded to the fact that no one wanted to open that huge can of worms [the superintendents’ agreement]. With the Portland Press Herald piece, that can’s about to be opened. I think that you’re going to see a sizable increase in requests for superintendent agreements.

I don’t want you to underestimate the “best interest of the child.” Sometimes, when we talk about the best interest of the child, parents aren’t always the best guides.

Katie: What are the barriers that kept school choice from being supported? In other states, what is their funding? Are there guidelines, like with charter schools? Are there guidelines to protect barriers, like funding? Superintendents, we’re the bottom line in a lot of things too. Are we creating a band-aid solution to something?

We want kids to go where they’re happiest and successful. I don’t want it to be that public schools aren’t doing their job. Can the barrier be undone?

Commissioner: The count in an open-enrollment school. If a student moves from Winslow to Waterville, that student will come off Winslow’s October 1 count. It’s convoluted because the state funding is based on enrollment counts from October of last year and April of the year before because it lags.

We have to consider special education responsibility funding, which is the residency question. Somebody has to be responsible for providing special education for that child.

When that student moves, the count moves. We run into the issue that where you are determines how much state aid you receive.

Katie: Did you consider ELL when you factored that?

Commissioner: Yes, it also picks up ELL allocation.

OK, let’s see if we can bite this off a bite at a time. Let’s look at this worksheet/chart I made up. The choice model shall address the following:

LD 1854 Choice Model Components:
Educating disadvantaged children
Educating and transporting special education students
Impact on school programming

Commissioner: What if the IEP has a transportation component? If there’s an IEP that says a student gets transportation, who’s responsible for that?

We probably want to go into this chart and start plugging notes in.

Any thoughts about how we would restructure this chart? Do we think this chart will be useful? Decisions about school choice are going to be made. It is to our benefit to be able to come to the Legislature with something. Because if we don’t, then the legislature is up there making the decisions without us, and that’s what we don’t want to have happen.

Issues the group would like to consider:
1) In giving kids this opportunity, how do we minimize the impact on the programs?
2) Taxation issue, under the funding component.
3) How do you ensure that taxpayers have some sort of role?
4) What’s the impact on students and families who don’t have the expanded choice model?
5) 21st-century learning. We can’t just judge success by one measure.
6) What is our collective definition of school choice?