The recent debate in Portland over the city’s policy allowing students to choose which high school they attend – a very limited version of school choice – has somewhat been missing the mark.

Although widening enrollment disparity between Deering and Portland high schools ought to be a concern for the school district, the solution isn’t to be found by tweaking the school choice rules; school choice itself isn’t the problem. We shouldn’t punish students by limiting or taking away their options simply because we don’t support their ultimate decisions, and that’s exactly what expanding the lottery system that currently covers Casco Bay High School would essentially be doing.

That’s an understandable response, as it fixes the problem without dramatically overhauling the school district, but even though it’s simple and easy, it’s absolutely the wrong approach. If it makes any changes, the district should be expanding school choice rather than curtailing it, moving to a true voucher system that includes local private schools. Limiting school choice because one school is failing to adequately compete is equivalent to a corporate bailout: While it may help in the short term, in the long run it doesn’t address any of the underlying problems.

The real solution to the widening enrollment disparity is to look at the reasons more students are choosing one school over the other and commit to addressing those issues. Rather than tweaking or limiting school choice, the school district should be trying to improve Deering so that more students will choose to go there. That might mean more funding or changes overall, or it could be that the district ought to focus on expanding certain programs at one school over the other, so students with those interests have a reason to choose a certain school.

This doesn’t mean moving completely away from having two general-focus high schools in the district, but it does mean providing greater differentiation between the two than culture, demographics and location. This already happens all the time in private and public education at all levels: Certain schools might have, say, a great history program or a hockey team, but that doesn’t mean that every single student goes there for only those reasons. This will happen naturally to some degree over time: If teams or activities are full at one school, students may reconsider going to the other school. However, it can also be an active decision of school administrators to emphasize certain programs rather than others.

This issue is hardly unique to Portland; some towns and districts in Maine have school choice because they don’t have any high schools, rather than having two. All over the state and country, any time school choice comes up as an issue opponents inevitably raise concerns about the ability of public schools to compete for students.


Really, this argument is hardly a nail in the coffin for school choice as much as it is an admission by its opponents that school choice supporters have a point. When school choice opponents voice concerns that school choice will take away resources from public schools, they’re essentially admitting that students only go to those schools because they can afford them and there aren’t any better options. Students should not be locked into a certain school based purely on geography, nor should they be forced to attend a certain school just to keep it open. Whether they’re public or private, schools ought to be focused on serving the students – they need to be the top priority. It’s not the fault of school choice that a school is failing to meet its students’ needs; it’s the fault of the school.

The entire focus of the education system, regardless of whether it’s public or private, should be on serving the students, not preserving itself for some other reason. If a private school faces declining enrollment, it needs to either make changes or it’ll end up shutting down. If the only school in a town no longer has a large enough student population to remain open, eventually there will be some hard choices to make there, too.

School districts often have to make changes to adapt to the times; that’s nothing new. Whether a town has school choice or not, the schools will face competition, both from other public schools and private schools. The quality of local school districts is often one factor people consider when buying a home, for instance. School choice doesn’t establish competition between schools: It just gives students a greater say – and that’s something we should all be applauding.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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