My views on school choice have evolved as a result of having grandchildren who attend one of Maine’s nine public charter schools. I used to be concerned that charter schools would take resources away from mainstream public schools. Now I understand the need for alternatives.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

When I was in high school in the 1960s, most schools had alternatives built into the curriculum – college technical, college academic, general, business, voc-tech. These days the alternatives tend to reside in separate schools. Students can be admitted to the state’s math-science magnet school in Limestone on a merit basis, they can apply to one of the nine charter schools on a first-come first-serve lottery basis, or they can attend regional technical schools or, in some districts, select an alternative, often experience-based school like Casco Bay High School.

If your town does not have its own high school, you can also attend a public or private school of your choice using taxpayer funds, unless, of course, the school is religious.

Until 1981, Maine students could use state tuition dollars to attend religious schools, but in response to a legal opinion that to do so violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause prohibiting the establishment of religion, the state Legislature passed a law that says a “private secondary school may be approved for the receipt of public funds for tuition purposes only if it is a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

So, for example, students in Raymond could use public funds to attend North Yarmouth Academy or Waynflete School, but not Cheverus High School, then an all-male Catholic school. In fact, a 1999 challenge to Maine’s 1981 law came from families in Raymond who wanted to be able to use public funding to send their sons to Cheverus.

The courts found then, and have repeatedly found, that the Maine law is constitutional. What is not constitutional is using public funds to pay for parochial schooling.


Now we have a new court challenge to the separation of church and state in Carson v. Makin, a case in which parents want tax dollars to send their kids to Christian schools in Bangor and Waterville. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice, with its highly partisan Religious Liberty Task Force, weighed in on the side of funding Christian schools with tax dollars, a stated goal of Education Commissioner Betsy DeVos.

Religious liberty used to mean protecting the rights of individuals to worship as they please. With the rise of the religious right, religious liberty has come to mean the freedom to force others to accept your beliefs.

The plaintiffs in Carson v. Makin are pinning their hopes on a 2017 Supreme Court decision that found that a Missouri church should not have been prohibited from applying for a grant to get ground rubber from the state for its playground.

My guess is that the playground decision is not on point. Unless Trump has managed to pack the courts with evangelicals, I don’t see Carson v. Makin succeeding.

On the other hand, I am coming around to the ideas that funding should follow the student. I’d have to say my views on school choice have evolved to the point where I could support tax dollars paying for a kid to attend an academically rigorous school like Cheverus. Bangor Christian School? I’m not quite there yet.

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