Mainers are no strangers to school choice. They were its pioneers 140 years ago. But in the 20th century, Maine was left behind as other states created larger programs to increase student access to private schools. For children in need of more customized learning, Maine mustn’t let this century slide.
In 1873, Maine was the second state — behind Vermont — to create a town tuitioning program allowing students without district public schools to receive tuition support, or vouchers, to attend neighboring public or private schools. Today, 20 other states and Washington, D.C., employ some type of school choice mechanism, empowering parents to select private schools for their kids through tax relief or publicly funded vouchers.
From 2011 to 2012, Maine students utilizing town tuitioning grew to 8,818 from 5,438. But still, Maine’s program pales in comparison to some other states’ school choice initiatives.
Indiana, for example, offers vouchers to all low-income students, and some middle-income families. In just the program’s second year, 9,324 Indiana children received vouchers. Around 55 percent, or 530,000 kids, are eligible for vouchers in Indiana.
Next door, Ohio has four voucher programs serving more than 25,000 students. But for Ohio’s governor, that’s not enough. He has proposed the state mirror Indiana’s program by making all low-income children statewide eligible.
A new survey released by our organizations found Maine voters want that same freedom. In a statistically representative sample of Maine voters, 55 percent favor vouchers; 38 percent oppose them. Moreover, 67 percent of Mainers believe vouchers should go beyond Indiana’s and Ohio’s programs and be available to all families.
When asked about tax-credit scholarships, a policy that provides tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to scholarship-giving nonprofits, 62 percent were supportive; only 24 percent were opposed. Similarly, 57 percent supported education savings accounts (ESAs), in which the state deposits funds that parents can use to cover private school tuition, online education, tutors or future college expenses; 32 percent opposed ESAs.
It’s no wonder Mainers want options. Looking at the state’s K-12 education system, only 31 percent of voters think it’s going in the right direction; 50 percent believe it is on the wrong track. Today, the default in Maine is that parents’ ZIP codes determine the schools where they must send their kids — with the exception of those lucky enough to utilize the town tuitioning program. That’s why nearly 92 percent of students are in traditional public schools — regardless of quality — and only 8 percent are in private schools.
However, according to our survey, if voters could select any type of school to obtain the best education for their children, just 36 percent would choose traditional public schools, whereas 42 percent would select private schools, 9 percent would opt for charters and 10 percent would home school their kids.
Importantly, the availability of such options would encourage improvement among all Maine students and schools. Of the 12 random-assignment studies — considered the “gold standard” of social science research — conducted on voucher programs, 11 concluded school choice improves student outcomes (six found all students benefit, five showed some benefit and some aren’t affected) and one found no visible impact. No empirical study on vouchers has found a negative impact.
As for vouchers’ effects on public schools, 22 of 23 empirical studies found school choice improves public schools, with one showing no visible impact. No empirical study has concluded school choice harms public schools.
And Maine public schools could use some incentives to get better — not only academically, but financially as well. From 1992 to 2009, student enrollment in Maine public schools dropped 11 percent. But over that same period, the number of administrators and other non-teaching staff grew a whopping 76 percent.
Had those increases among adults simply kept pace with children, Maine would have cost savings of more than $405 million each year, which could be used to give each teacher an annual raise of $25,505, among other worthy purposes.
But Maine public schools have no reason to do things differently because they have no real competition. School choice could provide that friendly incentive while giving parents, students and teachers the empowerment they want and deserve.
Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. J. Scott Moody is CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative educational and research organization.