School Choice Meeting Summary - Sept. 17, 2012


Commissioner Bowen: Why do we have to limit education to school walls or district walls? If there are educational opportunities outside those walls, let’s give them to students.

These are the principles that inform school choice. We’ll figure out how we want to take this on. What are we trying to achieve with school choice model? What are the issues we have to consider?

Introductions of group members are made.

Commissioner: We need to discuss a transportation solution. How does money go to pay for this? We do lots of task forces and study commissions. I borrowed some of this language from the educator effectiveness council.

Ideally we want to have a consensus report that we submit back to the Legislature. And we may have disagreement on this issue.

Minutes will be in committee members’ hands prior to subsequent meetings.

There are three public school choice opportunities in Maine right now. You have a couple of different school choice options in statute. Outside of statute, you can put your kids in a private school if you have the resources. You can send students to those schools at your own cost.

If you can afford to move to a different school district, then you have school choice. We know that outside of statute, people have choice. Inside of statute, we have three laws: 20-A paragraphs 5203, 5204 and 5205. The first one outlines the rights of elementary school students to attend school in a different unit. You pay tuition to that other district. This option is available under law.

This also applies to students living in remote districts. There’s a contract for school services with a school district. The district is responsible for seeing to it that I got a high school education somewhere.

If one area doesn’t have a public high school that kids can go to, two schools can sign a contract. An elementary school can make an agreement with a high school that says the kids are contractually obligated to go that specific high school.
Under statute, those contracts are supposed to come over to the Department. In practice, we don’t seem to have all of them.

Those “choice” districts tend to group around academies, such as George Stevens, etc.
In Maine, there are pockets of communities that don’t have high schools. This grew out of the early days, in the 1800s. You could build a high school, or you can just tuition your kids to that academy.

So there’s a regionally based school choice system. Students in some communities have choice because of this law, and some do not. During school district consolidation, some of that choice was taken away.

We had RSUs where some kids had choice and some did not. For example, there was an initiative to eliminate school choice in Raymond. They have opportunities to go to private academies. These are private schools that publically funded students to attend on the public’s dime.

Up until 1980, that list of approved private schools also included religious schools. You could get public funding to attend John Bapst, which was a religious school back then.

So these were schools to which students could go. You cannot get public tuition to fund all the students, though, and these became known as 60 percent schools. And a decision had to be made whether students in those private academies would take standards tests.
If the percent of students in the school is above a certain amount, you have to teach the learning results that are in the standards because 60 percent of students are publically funded. They have to do standards test.

Acton is still a school choice town. School choice was a barrier to some of these consolidation efforts.

There are ten or eleven academies in Maine, and most of them don’t have contracts. We don’t have all the contract lists we’re supposed to have at the Department.

This became an issue during district consolidation. We wanted to get a consolidated district around Brewer, but choice towns wanted to retain choice.
Brewer was allowed to remain on its own. Communities around it were allowed to consolidate into an RSU without a high school. The law is pretty clear that somebody’s got to take these kids, and districts have to produce tuitioning contracts.

Now, statute 5205 is the other way to get school choice and includes superintendent transfer language. Superintendents can agree to transfer a student from one school district to another. For the purposes of their education, they are considered “residents” of that district. Two superintendents may approve on their own, but parents can also make an appeal directly to me if the superintendents deny them. I have approved more of these when they get appealed to me. I’ve had about 60 on my watch.

Jonathan Nass: Is best interest of the student defined?

Commissioner: No. There’s a “student’s best interest” piece. That’s a tough one for me. I know it’s tough for the superintendents. We have 1,500 superintendents’ agreements in effect right now. We’ve got 50 or 60 or so when one superintendent or the other, or both, turned down the transfer, and that was appealed to me.

We’ve got school boards that have adopted policies around these transfers. School boards do not have authority, under statute, to place additional materials in packets with appeals information.

In statute, the “student’s best interest” is not defined. Law also says that superintendent shall annually review any transfer.

The law works just as if that kid had moved to town. Let’s say s student is transferred into Dexter. That student will show up in their October count, which comes to our office. When we use that budget for counts for next school year, that kid shows up. The state’s allocation follows the child eventually. The problem is that the numbers that we use lag behind.

State funding for 2013-14 will be taken from our count in October and what we had this past spring. The data doesn’t move fast enough, and decisions must be made much in advance for budgets, transportation and so forth.

Now, if the student transfers to a town academy, the district is obligated to pay that tuition payment. The district will have to budget and then pay those tuition payments to George Stevens, or wherever. And the academies get their money right away—there’s no lag time.

If a student transfers out of a school, it’s just as if that kid transferred out of the community. The state’s allocation for that student follows that student to the new school district. But the actual subsidy is different.

I’m anticipating there might be a desire on the part of the task force to dig into that funding. I’ll schedule Jim Rier to come in and talk about the funding piece.

The amount that you get from the state depends on whether you’re a high- or low-receiving district. Low-receiving districts get very little state support because the town may have money from tourism, etc.

Jacquelyn Perry: I live in Scarborough, and we don’t get a lot of money because of what you just said. If you approved six students from SAD 6 to move to Scarborough, when those students transfer from SAD 6 to Scarborough, what happens in October? If more students from areas that receive a lot of subsidy choose to attend schools in areas that receive little subsidy from the state, will the state save money?

Commissioner: No, because the state has a fixed amount of money they allocate for this, somewhere in the ballpark of $910 million. We look at what the enrollment numbers are. All of that gets fed into the formula, and the formula adjusts for all that. The amount of money that goes into schools statewide remains constant, but how that money is distributed changes, mostly based on student counts. We’re wading into the broader questions around school funding law. The numbers would move, but the total dollars wouldn’t change.

Polly Crowell: What is the impact of any of these kinds of changes – the impact on other students that are already there and the programs?

Should we think that we could impact the interpretation of this superintendents’ agreement law? It seems to me that there are a lot of best interests out there, and if you had several school districts nearby that created a team of people to review the child’s need. People in the general vicinity can get together. How do you make up your mind, as the commissioner, about a child’s best interest?

We are to come back to the Legislature with recommendations. Maybe it’s in the interest of the group that we work on the language of that statute.

Commissioner: You run into questions of childcare. If a parent works in one district, and needs to pick her child up in that district because she can’t arrange childcare anywhere else, who am I to say no? The question is, is that in the student’s best interest? Well, it’s in student’s best interest because it’s in family’s best interest. But other superintendents may say it’s not an academic issue, so no, they won’t make the agreement.

Tim Walton: The need might be on the student’s side. I think putting the student first in that case at the top of the need list. Who determines the need? Is it determined from the student’s aspect? Where does the need rest first? The student or the community?

Kevin Jordan: I think that best interest language is something that needs to be addressed. I think it puts superintendents in a tough situation, and you, Commissioner, in a tough situation. It’s a tough process for everyone. We wonder, is all the information getting to Augusta?

Commissioner: This is a good time to segue into the next piece on our agenda. What is the public policy goal that a public school choice model is intended to achieve? The Legislature did not say, “we’re not interested in school choice.” The language that they enacted says the stakeholders group shall develop a publicly funded school choice model that addresses those issues.

What do we want to try to achieve here? There ought to be a provision that a student’s need should be taken into consideration. You do have at least 1,500 kids, or their families rather, who felt that it was worth the effort to go to the superintendents involved and ask for a transfer for whatever reasons.

Polly Crowell: Is the idea of choice just to increase parents’ choices? Or to increase the number of kids who are not going to their home school district because somebody thinks they have a better opportunity somewhere else? If that’s really it, it seems like we should be talking more about why are people wanting to move their students out of their home school districts to somewhere else. I think that’s the larger issue. If that’s the basis for this, I have a problem with that.

Mike Thurston: There’s an assumption going in that this is a good idea. I read the Governor’s ABC initiative, but I’m not convinced, at this point, that choice is a great idea. I think I need to know what problem school choice is going to specifically address. If it’s just to have a competitive model, so that schools will be competing for students in order to become better….I think every school should be great. Running public education as a business model ensures that some schools will get better, but ensures that some schools will lose, too.

Tim Walton: I very much look forward to working with this group. I actually had the exact opposite thought: that 1,500 kids is a relatively low number of superintendents’ agreements. I think if more parents were more engaged, you might see that number rise significantly. I honestly think along the same lines that with only 1,500 superintendents’ agreements that those decisions aren’t taken that lightly. Parents have really put a lot of thought into them. I think there is probably very thoughtful decision making process in place.

Commissioner: 1,500 doesn’t count the times that families went into an office and settled it that way, without ever getting to the paper form of requesting a superintendents’ agreement. Most of the appeals I see are really an emotional thing.

Heidi Sampson: As a parent, I commend you for wanting to work with the child and find what’s best. I think those options should always be explored to the nth degree. My comment would be that parents need to be empowered. You need to bring them in as part of the team and not have educators be the sole decider of this. It is paramount to them, and it’s a huge family decision.

As for competition: I think it’s healthy. Yes, not everyone is a winner. But that’s where more parents come into play.

Amanda Clark: I believe my top three reasons for being here are that I believe that parents who have brought their children into this world…have the primary role of directing their child’s education – secondary being the government’s direction over their education.

My second reason for wanting to study choice: the evidence and statistics suggest that parents are not deciding this on a whim. And third: students who are educated in Cornville are going to have a very different experience than students who are educated in Falmouth. They might be near a better city for an internship, or for farming.

Jonathan Nass: I’d like to speak a little about where Governor LePage is coming from on this issue…the flexibility that he had at a Catholic school and the flexibility that he had as a bilingual student. He comes at this from a very personal perspective that all children are very different. Those individual children aren’t necessarily well-served. Given our dropout rates, I know that Governor LePage supports this.

Jacquelyn Perry: I don’t care what the teachers want because I care about students. Choice in education is a parental prerogative, and I don’t think public funds should be paying for choice. Conversely, I think this group here is an opportunity to enlighten everyone in our state…to why we’re here. Each of us wants to know why we are here. What is the stimulus? Why is it necessary? It’s an opportunity for all of us to work together for what’s best for our children.

Commissioner: Our charge from the Legislature was not to determine why we have school choice – it was to determine how. Education is a complicated universal subject. Let’s at least get some issues out on the table. What are the issues that we have to consider?

What is the public policy goal? The public policy goal is that you have some opportunities for kids, for whatever reason. The town line isn’t necessarily this immovable object that prevents you from accessing an educational opportunity in a district outside yours.