Educators seeking to inspire creativity, to induce students to look at old problems in new ways often use the phrase, “Think outside the box!” Yet those charged with managing our public education system — both paid professionals and volunteer citizen overseers — when confronted with the challenge of managing the education process, do precisely the opposite. They limit their thinking carefully to the confines of whatever box they currently inhabit.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the flap over charter schools — old charter schools, new charter schools, bricks and mortar charter schools and virtual charter schools. All these neat little “boxes” are generating far more controversy, debate, money and, most importantly, attention than their overall significance to the state’s education system would warrant. They are diverting our attention from the not always so neat little boxes where tens of thousands of our children spend most of their waking hours.

According to the state Department of Education’s most recent official “census” of school enrollment, Maine had 601 public and publicly supported schools to which, on the first day of last October, 183,545 students showed up to put in an honest day’s work trying to learn something. These schools ranged in size from 1,578 students at Thornton Academy in Saco to zero students at the now closed Marion C. Cook school in LaGrange.

The average Maine school had 305 students; the median school had 262 students. There were 96 schools with fewer than 100 students and 34 schools with fewer than 50 students. That’s 34 schools — not classrooms but schools — with an average enrollment of 24 students. Even removing the eight island schools that have always struggled with low enrollment totals, that leaves 26 schools with an average enrollment of 28 students. Many of these schools are in small rural towns where citizens fear the fate of the Marion C. Cook school that has been closed and the Stockton Springs Elementary School that will be closed. And many are in districts now engaged in the rush to deconsolidate, caught in the reaction to the forced consolidation of the past decade.

Charter schools undoubtedly serve as a source for innovative thinking and provide welcome choices for parents where they exist. But for many parents in Maine, school choice will not be an option. For them, community schooling is closer to home schooling than to charter schooling.

It is here in these small community schools, therefore, that I believe, we need inspired creativity and “outside the box” thinking. Rather than starting more schools from scratch that will join this long list of beloved in their communities but economically precarious schools, we should strengthen the central production and delivery of educational support services to these small schools that have long traditions of community support but limited abilities to overcome the inevitable diseconomies of scale driven by the inescapable demographic realities in which we live.

The Department of Education has made great strides in identifying and assisting accomplished teachers to develop advanced placement courses and to offer them online from central locations to remote sites in ways that enhance the offerings of local schools while sharing the expense of a highly skilled specialist across a larger number of students. We should encourage such efforts in the wider spread and educationally more critical area of elementary education. Digitally enabled devices will never replace teachers, but digitally expanded communication options provide a far better avenue for connecting eager young children to inspired teaching than building more schools.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: clawton@planningdecisions.com