School Choice Meeting Summary - Nov. 9, 2012

Commissioner Stephen Bowen: The panel has some responsibility to report back some recommendations relatively quickly. What choice options would students have? How does the funding work? Who has the responsibility for special education funding? Relatively soon we’ve got to have something for the Legislature.

Committee Member: The Legislature that put us here is not going to be the next Legislature.

Commissioner: What would you do differently?

Committee Member: The Legislature that passed the law, or didn’t pass the law that was proposed because they couldn’t stomach it, is different. I think Tuesday [Election Day] is a result of this very type of overreach. The time of legislation that was put forth that I think the people in this state said we don’t want that kind of overreach, so let’s pull back a little bit. If you want school choice to take a step, then let’s take a step?but not a massive overreach. I’d rather start with a conversation about what’s realistic and what’s not.

Commissioner: I don’t know how to assess what’s realistic. We have a charge as a committee. At the end of the day, this will all be handed to the new education committee, and they’re going to do with it whatever they want to do.

Should we start with what we’ve got and make tweaks from that? I was going to suggest that we could go at it as a group and throw some ideas around in each of these elements.

Committee Member: No matter what we do, public funding for education is not going to increase. So any recommendation that comes out of the committee is going to come from the same pot of money.

Commissioner: That hasn’t been decided. We only elected the Legislature two days ago.

Committee Member: Realistically, there is not going to be an extended pot of money for public education. If we have a choice model, and there are 57 kids from Scarborough that are homeschooled, the town is going to be responsible to funding 57 more children than we currently receive funds for. We would have to be responsible for educating 57 more children. If those 57 kids are in fact the responsibility of the town, that means that we’re going to have less money for the students we currently have. If we have a finite amount of money to spend on public education, then expanding school choice beyond what we have is going to cost the districts in less subsidy.

Commissioner: You have a whole host of assumptions in there. Sure, that’s a possibility, but there are a lot of possibilities.

Committee Member: I don’t want to spend hours hashing something out knowing that it may not pass, but we could work on making more guidelines. I appreciate your flexibility to say it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can bring forward a variety of standpoints.

Commissioner: I don’t want to hold anybody here against their will, if you think this is a fool’s errand.

Committee Member: I want what’s best for students. But I already have been teaching government and law for 30 years, so I know how this process works. I just don’t want to sit here and talk about all these different boxes when I know that when it gets to the education committee that it isn’t going to go anywhere.

Committee Member: We don’t know that.

Committee Member: Yeah, we do. Come on.

Committee Member: We knew that we’d be presenting this to a new Legislature.

Committee Member: It would be helpful if the issues around transportation could be clarified. I think the first issue is that I think they need to define what choice is in their own minds. We did say it’s to increase the number of educational opportunities. To apply school choice to the whole state in a way that’s fair, it’s going to be a huge task. To me, certain types of choice is one piece of what the state might do of many.

Committee Member: If there is a consensus, and we all agree, then mark that down. We should do that with each one in the chart. There are obvious strengths and weaknesses.

Committee Member: I’m still interested in arriving at a good model. I don’t care whether the Legislature approves it or goes the other way. I’d love to be a part of it.

Commissioner: The Legislature is going to do something for school choice. We know that the Superintendents’ Agreement will be in front of the Legislature. Something is going to be different, almost certainly, around school choice. But everybody has to agree. If they don’t agree, school choice stays the way it is.

[See "School Choice Continuum" chart]

Commissioner: Intra-district. A lot of districts are doing this?choice within districts. We were getting a lot of calls from Raymond and Windham. One was overcrowded, and one was not. They moved the border. We can’t do anything at a Department level. Inside a district, that’s a board policy.

Then there’s the inter-district, which is case-by-case. You don’t have a policy. If the student wants to get a transfer, superintendents confer. The deciding factor is the best interest of that individual student.

Then there’s inter-district, open-enrollment type models. Students can enroll in other districts.

The law that’s in place gives districts the authority to get together and decide between them what they want to do.

Superintendents’ transfer is in statute. The option for districts to create a model is in statute. But they have the option of doing that. We’re five districts, we all use the same forms, etc.

Committee Member: The reason that’s exciting is because that student from Waterville might take four classes in Winslow and one in Waterville, and still play football for Winslow and live there, etc. But we don’t do these things to that extent.

Committee Member: We have the basis for that concept with Career and Technical Education schools. Students take the majority of their classes outside their district, so to speak, take a couple at their home school, and still playing sports at their home school. I don’t think we’ve explored that option enough. It also could solve the transportation problem. I think it takes some thought, and I haven’t figured out how to do all that. But I think it’s doable. It’s an option.

Commissioner: Limited school vouchers. That exists in areas in which you don’t have high schools. The type of school structure is causing the choice.

Homeschooling, private schooling. Parents take care of the education or private tuition. That’s choice because they can afford to homeschool them, or they can afford to write a tuition check.

Then universal school vouchers. I don’t know anywhere that this exists. The money goes to the families, and the families choose where the kids go. That’s the other end of the spectrum.

I guess the question is, is it the desire of the group to see where we’ve got some common ground among these types of models, or should we have folks say what they want?

Committee Member: It seems like the chart you have here addresses the issue that we’ve been charged to address. It seems logical that we’d go through and plug this in.

Commissioner: Do we want to start with something that’s on this sheet already, or do we want to start with a blank sheet of paper?

Committee Member: Let’s start with something we already have.

Commissioner: If we know we have the superintendents’ transfer agreement in place in law now?districts have the authority to create the fourth column, and charter schools. I think we’re somewhere in that middle territory.
Committee Member: I still think that we’re not in any territory. I think this chart does a nice job of framing many of the options. In the first column, there are a lot of pros to that model: long-range planning, longitudinal studies, taxation follows the student, people being taxed have the chance for representation on the school board. If districts could be more open-minded about the students out on the periphery without selling the taxation and the local responsibility for educating kids, then I think we’re in a good place. I think that discussion will be beneficial.

Commissioner: The vast majority of kids are still going to go to the school down the street from where they live.

Committee Member: When you talk about the overall student pop and then the ones homeschooled etc,, it ended up being right around 15 percent of the population. Just to give you some idea. That’s a fair amount of students that are operating within school choice.

Committee Member: If the goal is to boil it down to one model, we’re not going to get there. You just proved that we have a variety of model choices in the state. The one we don’t agree on is the open-enrollment model.

Commissioner: The proposal that we put forward is what plugs into that fourth column.
There ought to be a way that the town line is not the way to make that decision.

The argument would be that when we do superintendents’ agreements it can’t just be about the best interest of the student. It has to make sense geographically.

You’ve hit the heart of the question here. Which students will be eligible for choice options?

Committee Member: Town line is going to be a very hot topic, on what that means. All my employees’ children come to Auburn.

Commissioner: But you’re assuming that’s the only thing on the list. I was going to start with the town line topic. The debate is this “best interest” question. Do we want to take the time as a group to explore those issues, or do we want to say there isn’t going to be agreement on this, and the Legislature will propose whatever?

Committee Member: The statute in the state is that the student shall attend school in the system in which they reside. Best interest is beyond that. They were set up that way for a reason. But what about when Timmy wants to go over the boundary? There were 2,386 total requests for superintendents’ agreements last year. Almost 91 percent of those were granted at the local level by people who knew the situation and knew the families. 9.6 percent were denied. That’s means 224 cases were denied. 92 of those were appealed. Of the 92 that were appealed, six were upheld by the Commissioner’s Office. As a person who strongly believes that the best decisions on these matters are made at the local level, that’s compelling data. You’ve said, Steve, that you don’t want to know Timmy. You just want to know that he’s being well-served. Perhaps that local model isn’t enough, but it seems to be working fairly well.

Committee Member: We do have choice in a variety of ways. The concern I have is twofold: consistency, and there’s a difference among superintendents, and consistency of these options. Many kids have choice, but many don’t. Part of why I’m here is to broaden those options. We’re never going to get every kid in the state having the same options. But we’re doing a service to families and kids by simply broadening those options. There is no smaller government than the one that’s sitting around the kitchen table. And we can get more of those decisions around that table.

Commissioner: We’ve discussed broad philosophical concepts about school choice, and there’s disagreement about that. There just is.

Committee Member: You don’t discipline everyone when it’s one child. When John says that there needs to be more consistency, we shouldn’t have a top-down approach. Instead you put more pressure on it because some schools aren’t playing right. Because somebody hurt a child, we now have huge regulations. Do you understand what’s going to happen if we don’t start opening up, collaborating as schools? Absolutely, we have to be in the best interest of the students.

Committee Member: I think the open-enrollment bill is permissive, not punitive.

Committee Member: I cannot support school choice that takes money away from school boards.

Committee Member: The first thing that I do when I review that file is what’s the statute in the state of Maine? That you go to school in the district. But what is the primary document that you work from?

We could solve a lot of this if we could fill out the blank chart. I think we need to explore that question.

Commissioner: Do we want to put some kind of parameters, guidance around this? I could do an administrative letter. We did one. I don’t know what more guidance we could give.

Committee Member: Let’s do something to make that happen. That’s how we got all those SADs. Tuesday showed us that that’s not what we’re looking for.

Committee Member: The open-enrollment proposal was an incredibly modest proposal. To suggest that that’s some right-wing agenda is ludicrous.

Committee Member: If John feels that passionate about it, he can submit his feelings again. You could require districts to get together and offer more choice. We’re open to being more collaborative, but we’re not willing to go all the way to open enrollment. We just have different perspectives.

Commissioner: What if we assign ourselves some homework? We have all these resources to look at. If you want to send in your thoughts about what you think we need to do, I can put those all together in a grid. I won’t put any names on it. Here are some different options. I could send it back out, and we don’t have to meet again, and we can submit to the Legislature as a report.

I think that would be a valuable thing. This set of these sheets would be valuable to give to the Legislature. I think we’ve done a lot of good work here. We just don’t have a lot to show for it. We’ve thrown around a lot of issues, but it’s complicated. We weren’t happy with the transportation, etc. My fear is that if we keep having these meetings, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

Send me the assignments by two weeks from today: Nov. 21.

Let’s hold the time for our next meeting on Nov. 29, from 3 to 5 p.m.