School Choice Meeting Summary - Oct. 15, 2012


Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s introduction and review of agenda.

Committee Member: What authority does the receiving district have over whether they continue to receive the student?

Commissioner: Our underlying bill allowed districts to opt into becoming a school of open enrollment. Governance is still a local control issue. That is fundamentally local control.

Committee Member: What about the impact of school choice on taxpayers? The sending district no longer has the cost of sending that child. This offers options and choices for districts, not just for students and families.

Commissioner: We’re at the point that there is no foundation for our work. There is no bill at this point. We’ve been given specific instructions by the Legislature.

Committee Member: In my opinion, the definition of “choice” is to provide increased numbers of quality educational opportunities for all Maine students.
It goes back to the money issue. How do you pay for it? And in the process, do we give up local control? Do you want your local district to have to pay more? It’s going to cost somebody more money than it costs now. It’s going to move the money around that the state hands out.

Commissioner: I want to influence the Legislature’s decision somehow. We can come up with ways to do this. Our goal is to provide them with recommendations for how a choice model might work and to address these issues.

Let’s look at the underlying bill, and we as a group can tinker with it. We as a group are starting at a base. I think it was a good starting point. Let the schools say, “We have excess capacity, and we want to utilize it, and kids want to come here.”

If we can sort of establish goal-wise what we’re trying to achieve, then we can take that bill and lay that bill up against those expectations and see where we get. We can see which elements of the bill will do that and which won’t.

Committee Member: We need to provide local controls to the sender and the receiver. If Waterville opens up its doors and Skowhegan starts losing kids in their programs, that does create some problems.

The language that’s in the actual bill that passed that allows both to have some control makes a lot of sense. I see that it’s a one-way road—not a two-way road.

The districts that are sending students no longer have to fund that student. If the student is being educated elsewhere, then your pool is smaller.

Committee Member: When I accepted this appointment, I assumed that we weren’t starting from square one. We have from September through January to do something.

Committee Member: The assumption is that it’s a one-way street, but if we open this up then it’s a flow. This is our third meeting, so let’s start moving.

Committee Member: What about representing special education? We need to put that in the language also.

Commissioner: Transportation is up to the districts. Funding is available as-needed and on an income-contingent basis. Let’s make sure transportation is not a barrier—let’s minimize it.

Committee Member: I wouldn’t want to put some transportation requirement on schools that want open enrollment. I think you need to be careful on mandating.

Committee Member: I don’t think it would be necessary to mandate that schools would have to do this. This is a parent’s decision. Parents can be extremely resourceful, and if you have a number of students going to another school from your area, there is carpooling etc. It’s putting more onus on the parents. We’re in a very rural state—most people do have cars. So we’re not putting the onus on the schools to have to do that.

Commissioner: In the superintendents’ agreement, the responsibility for transport is on the parents. It limits people’s abilities to access it.

Committee Member: Our charge is to create additional learning opportunities for all students in Maine. Even if the bulk of the burden does fall on the parents, we nonetheless have accomplished our goal. Accessibility would be important to that.

Committee Member: I can’t be OK with a system that creates inequity. We need to proceed with caution when setting this up. Every kid is going to be guaranteed a public education in the state of Maine. You’re going to end up with unequal classes. There are inherent inequities among schools in Maine. Some enhanced local control if some schools want to offer something a little more. Guaranteeing transportation to any school in the state is going to be a complicated endeavor.

Committee Member: Different kids have different options. I see our charge as providing as many options as possible.

Committee Member: I think you’re underestimating the ingenuity of parents. There’s a choice, and with choice comes decision. Parents need to get more engaged with their kids’ education. They become more engaged. I’ve seen it.

Committee Member: Philosophically, we’re saying an opportunity for all students, but we’re not really saying that. I have the perfect example in my community. Which school does everybody want to go to? In the community, their understanding is, if you go to a wealthy school, you’re in the wealthy community. You have to give some equity. Yes, I agree, parents are resourceful, but I have parents that don’t have cars, food, etc. We have school choice now with the CIPS program, and I don’t have many families that take advantage of that.
It sounds like we’re not saying for all—we’re saying for those who can or those who are able.

Committee Member: I’ve heard school choice for “all” the students. And I heard Mr. Nass say “some” kids will have the options. The equity standpoint is very important to us. Without an opportunity to talk about transportation, I will guarantee that school choice will go out the window. There’s a significant population in Maine that won’t be able to take advantage of it.

Committee Member: How will transportation impact special ed? If one town happens to have a better reputation than another town, and we say we will transport, there’s a good chance that the special program is going to go away completely in that other town. And that’s where the law seems to be hazy. Well, administrators may say, “I don’t have to hire a special ed teacher for those who are gone.” The other town is left with no program at all. That could really make a big difference. We need to discuss the impact on programming. It’s related to transportation, too.

Committee Member: I know there are states that have scholarship transportation subsidy, etc. We’re not going to be able to guarantee that we can transport kids to any school in the state.

Committee Member: We already have existing transportation going between multiple schools and a CTE program. We should tap into those resources that might already be in existence.

Commissioner: We can do some digging to see what other states have done with transportation.

Funding is going to be another issue. There isn’t going to be any money flowing between districts. The student becomes a student of the other district. There are two issues: (1) the state subsidy trails, and (2) there’s a variation among districts about how much subsidy they get.

We need to consider: does money follow the kid? What are the marginal costs?
There are provisions for how many students you can lose in a given year. The charter school law says there’s a cap on the percentage of students enrolled per grade level.

Theoretically, you could have a ring of charter schools around your district that each are taking 5 percent from one school, but I don’t think that would happen. Charter schools only succeed if kids come when they open the doors.

Committee Member: In the previous legislation, can you explain your thoughts, Commissioner, as far as the funding goes, in original LD1854?

Commissioner: Worked just like a superintendent transfer….Maybe there isn’t much of an impact either way. Those decisions would be clear to you in schools in the spring when you’re building budgets. We need to have some system that makes the funding of these students manageable.

Committee Member: Going back to special ed. Would you allow open-enrollment just in regular programming but not in the special ed program?

Commissioner: No

Committee Member: What if it turns out they need special education outside of the district? Can I say, “Now I decline you because your expense just went up $30,000?” We have kids moving all the time, and the price tags are high. You had x number of slots, but it’s a lottery.

Commissioner: Receiving district can’t handpick kids.

The academies do not live under the same law. They have more latitude. The only time they would have to take special education students is if they have a contract. For example, John Bapst doesn’t have a special education program—so they don’t take those students.
But these charter schools—they’re going to have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

We need to build some responsiveness to the movement of kids and the movement of costs.

Committee Member: Is the state able to take responsibility for these circumstances, if the receiving school is really taking a big hit financially? If the state is promoting this, then they have to make up for these real issues that will occur on both sides.

Commissioner: We’re trying to find some way to mitigate these costs. The cost of these high costs special ed kids is an issue here, but it is a broader issue.

Maybe we could create a fund for “high-risk” students. What if the state could develop that? Again, that money’s got to come from someplace. To some degree, you would have districts subsidizing.

If it’s open enrollment, you could take that to some extremes if you’re transporting them. That goes to the governance issue. On whose dime are the special ed services for this year being provided? In the first year, if that was a special ed student at your open-enrollment school, you billed the resident district in year one. In year two, after the kid was on your account, then your school was responsible.

I couldn’t turn around and close my open enrollment. I will know in March what the number of students might be, and I could say I couldn’t afford it.

But schools are going to have to fund students in-house for a year.

This is going to be a different discussion in every school district. Let the school boards make this decision. They can decide what they think they will be able to manage. They need to make their intentions known by that date.

If we have wait lists for the open-enrollment schools, that we would allow some flexibility in terms of funding.

On the topic of educating disadvantaged children: is there a way that we can mitigate that to an extent? Let’s look at some other states, especially the really rural states.

Committee Member: Kids have choice now. The kids that really want it, they get it. But their next-door neighbor may not have the ability to pursue this. That’s not equity for all kids.

Committee Member: Even the hardship case, they can find a way to get school choice.

Committee Member: Are all children right now getting a quality education? The family makes a decision for their student. Without choice there’s a problem of inequity right now. Would choice solve the inequity problem in Maine?

Committee Member: It’s not an easy decision, like school choice: yes, or school choice: no. You’ve got to get more in depth into this issue.

Commissioner: The committee and the Legislature could have said that superintendent transfers are enough. That could have been our school choice model. But that’s not what they said. I think that’s because there was uniform agreement that that’s not the road we wanted to go down. They said, “Get a group together and see if we can’t get a better way to do this.”

Committee Member: The way the law’s written now, we’ve had two consolidation laws in this state, and one was awful.

We’re talking about local control, but not for sending or receiving schools.

You can be a student at Winslow but just go to the strings program. If you provide an incentive to get Lewiston and auburn at the table to talk about something like that, it could work. We need to operationalize this.

Committee Member: Maybe we can look at CTE programs for a transportation model. Superintendents agreed to do transportation, and attendance went way up. We can see where there’s already transportation in existence. I see buses as a resource—how do we tap into that?

Commissioner: We’ll summarize what we’ve been talking about. How do you mitigate kids coming and going and that impact on programming? We need to focus on some of these big local control issues.

Last question: Do we want to continue to do this work as a large committee, or do we want to chunk the group (like we did with the early college group) where we could say, let’s get a group working on each thing?

Committee Member: We could send out the notes and occupy the spaces on the handout. Then next meeting you could have us come back and share our ideas. We could break this down and start to really focus.