Wednesday, December 4, 2013
It's school shopping season -- and we're not talking about new clothing, knapsacks or three-ring binders.
This year, like never before, Maine parents and their kids can go shopping for actual schools.
"Maybe we should change the name on the back of our kids' (athletic) uniforms," lamented Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools Judith Paolucci in an interview last week. "Instead of 'Yarmouth,' it should read 'Yarmouth et al.' "
She's only half-joking. If you want to send your kid to another town to play on a better sports team, enroll in a music program your local district doesn't offer or simply bask in a new facility that's night-and-day better than the school down the street, there's a better-than-decent chance Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen will make it happen.
What's more, you can make the switch at no extra cost to you or your hometown.
It's simple: Parents unable to get permission from two school districts (the one in which they live and the one in which they don't) for their kids to transfer are appealing to Bowen in unprecedented numbers to override the local superintendents.
And it's working: In recent weeks, 68 such appeals have been filed with the commissioner. Of those, 50 have been granted, 15 are still pending and only three have been denied.
"It's no secret that the commissioner and the governor are looking for more school choice," explained David Connerty-Marin, communications director for the Maine Department of Education. "At a minimum, (that means) public-school choice where students aren't hamstrung by arbitrary town lines -- they get to go where they think it makes the most sense." Did we hear that right? In a state where "local control" has for decades been a fiercely protected tradition (particularly among conservatives), Maine's municipal boundaries are now viewed as "arbitrary?"
"You can go to any gym you like, regardless of where you live," replied Connerty-Marin. "Why do you have to go to the school that happens to sit within a line that's on the ground?"
More on that in a minute. First, a little history:
For years, the annual handful of parents wishing to transfer their children to a school outside their local districts have submitted their requests to the superintendents in each district.
Under state law, if both school superintendents agree that the move is "in the student's best interest" -- for example, the family just moved to another town but Junior wants to spend his senior year with his lifelong buddies -- the districts execute a "superintendents agreement" and it's a done deal.
If one or both superintendents don't sign off, however, the parents can appeal to the education commissioner, who has final say on whether the transfer occurs.
Enter "An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students," a bill Commissioner Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage tried to push through the Legislature in March.
Among other things, the measure tweaked the "superintendents agreement" process to require that the commissioner grant the parents' appeal if the school has space and the commissioner disagrees with the dissenting superintendent(s). The bill also would have automatically trumped any local districts that "deny all such requests."
Anxious lawmakers balked at passing the bill, choosing instead to set up a study group that will hold its first meeting later this month.
But in the meantime, Bowen is using his discretion under existing law to steamroll over dissenting superintendents and give the parents -- in all but a few unspecified cases -- whatever they want.
"The commissioner has told the superintendents that he is going to be looking at this more broadly than his predecessors," said Connerty-Marin. "His starting point, his baseline, is that if a student and the parents are looking for it, then they probably have the best idea of what's in the best interest of the student."
(Continued on page 2)