Rural Maine Districts Worry As Trump Aims To Beef Up ‘School Choice’

Apr 4, 2017

Under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, the federal Department of Education would see a drastic cut in almost every area except for one: it would add more than $1 billion in funding for “school choice.” That new emphasis has many educators in rural Maine concerned.

Mt. Abram Regional High School, north of Farmington, is a small school, with only around 150 students. But the teenagers who step off the bus each morning come from dozens of towns, some 50 or 60 miles away. That can mean a long bus ride for some.

Senior Olivia Scott says it has created a tight knit community.

“Here, you get a really strong sense of who you are individually,” she says. “You get to know all of your classmates and all of your peers and all of your teachers, even.”

“Everything happens there, town meetings happen there,” says Susan Pratt, the superintendent of MSAD 58, which contains Mt. Abram. In an area that’s been hard-hit by a loss of jobs and people, she says the schools are much more than a place to hold classes.

“They’re the center of the community,” she says. “It’s really the only gathering place for some of these little towns.”

And that has Pratt worried about a new push for school choice in the president’s budget proposal.

While it’s still unclear what exactly school choice would mean, a common approach is to give families vouchers for a certain amount of money and let them choose where they want their kids to go to school. It has been tried in places such as Wisconsin and Florida, to mixed results.

Pratt says in rural western Maine, where schools are hours away from each other, getting students to another destination would be close to impossible. Experts say that means the law would likely benefit more affluent students who could supply their own transportation.

“There aren’t a lot of options for many of the school systems,” she says. “Your options are limited. And so their choices are limited for folks, just because of the distance, as much as anything else.”

But for many educators, the bigger worry is what happens if students do leave their current public school district. Tina Meserve, the superintendent of RSU 16 in Poland, says she’s concerned it would leave schools without enough students and revenue to provide a quality education.

“You’ve got to have a certain student population to offer AP chemistry, AP physics, AP calculus. Plus your regular algebra and geometry class,” she says. “So again, you run into that problem of needing to have a certain student population to provide a well rounded education for kids.”

Meserve says her district got a taste of the problem four years ago, after roughly a dozen students left the district for a new, nearby charter school. It cost the district $130,000 in state subsidies.

“There were one or two kids from each grade level,” she says. “And you can’t cut a teacher. It doesn’t reduce your transportation costs. You can’t close down a building. But $130,000 is a lot of money. It’d be equivalent to us of three teaching positions.”

But Maine already has a number of school choice programs in place. The state is home to nine charter schools. State law allows for one more, though a bill in the state Legislature could potentially get rid of that cap.

In addition, roughly 5,000 students in Maine live in a school district without a public school. That means they can choose whatever school they want to go to. And there are some educators who don’t have a problem with expanding that policy.

“I’d say competition — and this is just me — but bring on the competition,” says Gary Smith, the superintendent of RSU 18 near the Belgrade Lakes. “Because I think we’re doing a good job.”

Smith has some reservations about school choice, but he also says he would welcome more schools with specialized programs.

“I’m not going to say that someone else might not be able to create a niche that would be the right thing for a child,” he says. “I’ve had too many parent meetings to say, ‘Nope, this is one size fits all, and that’s how you’ve got to do it.’“

In fact, RSU 18 has taken a unique approach with the Snow Pond Arts Academy, a performing arts charter school in nearby Sidney. Smith says he actually has worked with the academy to share services such as nutrition and transportation, and he says he could even see them sharing academics in the next few years.

“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” he says. “But I think we’ve done better than average in that implementation.”

Many of these new ideas emerging from the Trump administration are still just proposals. But many rural educators in Maine will be watching the budget negotiations closely. They say their future may at stake.