PUBLIC EDUCATION OPTIONS
The primary public option in Maine’s system of schools is the traditional local district schools. There are currently 174 school districts containing 617 schools serving over 175,000 students. Many towns have consolidated school districts, but not all. And some rural districts do not have their own high schools, choosing to “tuition out” their students to town academies or independent schools. District schools in Maine are governed by an elected school board, whose primary roles are to develop policies for the efficient and effective operation of the district and approve curriculum. The Maine Department of Education (MDOE) does not mandate curriculum, but they do have a set of high school diploma requirements. Additionally, the MDOE does choose a standardized assessment method for schools to use, which is currently the NWEAs. The current MDOE encourages a whole child model and is working to support innovative approaches such as outdoor, cross-disciplinary, and project-based learning.
There are ten public charter schools serving 2,662 students. Many of these have waiting lists and despite high demand, a legislative amendment in 2019 placed a limit of ten for the entire state. Lotteries are in place to select students for schools with waitlists. Maine’s charter schools serve students from a wide geographic area, attracting families looking for a particular approach they are not finding in their local school. Public charter schools operate under a higher level of oversight than other public schools. If they do not meet standards set by the Maine Charter School Commission and the requirements of their charter (contract with the State of Maine), their charter can be revoked. The charter schools are overseen by the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Charter School Commission, and the school’s own board of directors. Charter school boards of directors are not elected officials; rather, their governance operates under the same legal structures as many of Maine’s non-profit organizations. Board members are local community members duly vetted under the nominating policies of each school and approved by the Maine Charter School Commission. Funding for the operation of the schools is based on a state capitalization allocation. Funding for infrastructure is from private donations or bond issues.
The Maine legislature passed a law in 2015 permitting school boards to establish “community schools” under clear guidelines. The bill also empowered the MDOE to designate 3 pilot schools in 2016-2017, 5 more in 2020-2021, and 10 additional schools biannually starting in 2021-2022. The law describes the basic purpose of a community school: “ A community school shall collaborate with community partners to provide services to students, families and community members that promote student success while addressing the needs of the whole student.” The bill encouraged school boards to prepare the groundwork for establishing a community school by assessing student and familiy needs that could impact learning and achievement as well as local resources and potential partnerships that could be employed to meet those needs. As of Fall 2021, the MDOE, through an application process, is offering grants to districts seeking community school designation. While there are many schools offering some elements of the community school model, there is much room for further development of this option.
Maine law provides a homeschooling option for parents. Many districts permit homeschooled students to participate in some classes, sports, or other after school activities. Families must register within ten days of starting home instruction, agree to basic curricular requirements, and choose an approved method of yearly learning assessment. The number of families opting for homeschooling had increased dramatically in Maine even before the pandemic, but as of the 2020-2021 school year the number of homeschooled students almost doubled, to over 12,000. Growth in homeschooling since 2005 has averaged about 4% per year, or more than 60% over the past fifteen years. Maine has an active and robust set of groups that support parents and students that choose this option. The Maine Homeschool Association provides detailed information.
Innovation Schools, Districts, and Zones
In 2011, the Maine State Legislature passed a bill allowing districts to create Innovative Schools, Districts and Zones. Many states have passed similar laws over the last twenty years, often calling such schools “Innovation Schools.” This legislation provides an opportunity for school boards to apply to the MDOE to pilot new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Innovative Schools are funded as regular district schools and serve the purpose of research and development for the district while providing additional options for families. An Innovative School can even be co-located with a traditional school, making it easy for families to access. Innovative Schools must uphold collective bargaining agreements made by the district. Despite the enabling legislation, no Maine district has piloted an Innovative School. Unlike with Community Schools, The Maine Department of Education has not promoted this option, and more can be done to optimize this unique opportunity for districts and students. In particular, districts with persistent achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism might explore using this option.
There are two public magnet schools in Maine: the Maine Academy of Science and Math (MSSM) serving approximately 129 students and the Maine Ocean School serving up to 40 students. Maine lags most states in support and encouragement of magnet schools, which can enroll students from across Maine who are seeking a specialized learning environment. Magnet schools function under the governance of the State Department of Education and are authorized by legislation. Funding for magnet schools has been inconsistent. MSSM, in the northern town of Limestone, was chartered by the legislature in 1994 and funded by general appropriations from the legislature. Additional income flows to MSSM from international students who pay tuition and room and board fees paid by Maine families on a sliding scale. The funding provisions have allowed this school to thrive. Despite the enormous success of MSSM, no other magnet school was opened until 2016 when the Maine Ocean School was permitted to open in Searsport. Funding for this magnet school did not follow the formula used for MSSM in Limestone, and instead used the model for charter school funding. Currently, the Maine Ocean School does not enjoy clarity about the future of its funding. Despite providing the possibility for Maine high school students to learn in ways that connect them to our coastal heritage industries, the legislative climate has been less supportive of the second magnet school. Neither of the two magnet schools have unionized teachers.
Town academies in Maine offer a unique historical model for educating students. The eleven town academies, the oldest of which opened in the 18th century, are public-private hybrid schools that each enroll more than 60% publicly-funded students coming from towns without public high schools. Other students from around the state may apply for admission as boarding or day students. The academies currently enroll almost 5,000 students under the 150-year-old “tuitioning-in” program. The tuition rate is set by the State Board of Education and is Maine’s average per-pupil cost for secondary education in the previous year, plus an additional payment intended to cover depreciation of independent schools’ buildings. There is often a gap between what the State Board of Education sets for tuition fees and the actual cost to educate students at an academy, so schools rely on boarding student revenue as well as fundraising. Town academies are governed by citizens nominated by each school’s board of trustees, and some are also exploring ways to involve local taxpayers to a greater extent. The academies function independently of the Maine Department of Education.