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Maine School Choice Proposal Generates Passionate Debate
03/15/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Few issues in education generate as much passion as school choice. It's the kind of debate where people on both sides tend to dig in their heels and fight. That's what happened this afternoon inside a hearing room in Augusta, when state lawmakers took public testimony on school choice proposals backed by Gov. Paul LePage.

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Maine School Choice Proposal Generates Passionate Listen

The young girl, barely an adolescent, leans against the wall by the door to the committee room. A two-and-half hour car ride to the state capitol has come down to this: As adults talk, sometimes over each other, she waits. And waits. Until finally, she hears her name, called out by state Sen. Brian Langley, the Republican chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

"It looks like an Emma Murray. The chair would recognize Emma Murray. Welcome. And thank you for waiting so patiently in the back of the room," he says.

Murray has come to tell the men and women of the committee about her old school. "When I actually went to public school, I actually found that most of the kids in 7th grade at Medway Middle School were bullied," she says.

Bullied not by other kids, Murray says, but by their teachers. "One of the 7th grade teachers at Medway Middle School called one of my friends fat, stupid, ugly."

Things got so bad, Murray says, that her parents pulled her out of the school. She's homeschooled now. She still goes to Medway in the afternoon to play in the band and sing in the chorus. But Murray says she misses spending the days in class with her friends.

"If the state had school choice, the students wouldn't have to be bullied or teased," she says. "The students in Maine could choose a better school environment or one that would be best for their learning abilities."

If the LePage Administration has its way, Emma Murray may soon have this chance. A bill backed by the governor would create a so-called open enrollment system throughout the state. Public schools and some private schools that already accept state money could elect to become schools of choice. Families could enroll kids without needing permission from the districts where they currently reside.

Steven Bowen, the state education commissioner, says the idea is hardly a radical one. "Had we come in here with a school voucher program, for instance, where we were going to stop sending money to school districts and fund parents directly, and let them choose and go through that process, in my mind that would be a significant departure from what we're doing now," Bowen says.

Maine, Bowen notes, has had school choice for decades in the form of superintendent transfers and the town academies, private independent schools that accept kids from towns and districts that don't have their own high schools.

But Tom Farkas, a parent of two school age kids, says open enrollment would have dangerous consequences. "The governor's proposals would create two tiers of public education in Maine," he says. Farkas has an 8th grader at the Gardner Regional Middle School and a 5th grader at Pittston Consolidated School. He also serves on the RSU 11 school board.

He worries districts like his would see an exodus of kids. "A top tier would be for those families with the means and resources to send their children at public expense outside their local school district to whatever schools would take them. And the lower tier would be for all other families that remain in the district. This lower tier would end up footing the bill for those in the top tier," he says.

Opponents of open enrollment also worry about something called "cherry picking." That's when a school or district only chooses, say, the brightest students or the best athletes. The LePage administration says the practice would not be allowed if open enrollment were to become law.

But with the clock ticking down on this abbreviated session, it's unclear whether the bill will even make it out of committee, let alone to the full Legislature.


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