We agree with Gov. Paul LePage that education systems should be focused on students and their success. We also agree with state Education Commissioner Steven Bowen that 200-year-old town lines should not be the sole determining factor in deciding where a child should go to school.

That’s why we have supported past school reform efforts such as school district consolidation, which was intended to reduce administrative costs and create more opportunities for students to chose programs within larger districts. And we supported charter school legislation, which has become law and will give families more choices about the environment in which they can place their student for the best results.

But the governor’s proposed school choice initiative is overly broad and could take opportunities away from as many children as it helps. We think the Legislature should take a careful look at this bill and limit its scope.

This is how the law is supposed to work. A student and family would have a choice of going to their local school or a school of choice, which could be either another district’s public school or a state-approved private school, including some religious schools. Funding would follow the student from his home district to the school that he attends.

Rules for schools

In order to receive students, the school would have to accept certain rules. A school of choice would have to make a certain number of slots available on a first-come, first served-basis, and would have to hold a lottery if there were more applicants than openings.

The receiving school could not cherry-pick applicants, for example, making space for a star basketball player or a gifted musician, but denying space to a child with special needs.

Still, this would create a bonus for private and religious schools that want to participate. Every one of their students could enter the lottery, and the winning students each would get a $9,000 tuition reduction, courtesy of their local school department.

The school would be under no obligation to reduce its costs. After getting a check of taxpayer money, it still could send out a bill for the difference between state tuition and its usual cost, which could be significant.

For instance, Waynflete School in Portland currently charges $25,275 per year for high school students, so a family could “win” the lottery and still get a $16,000 bill.

Since only people who are prepared to take on that kind of commitment would apply, it’s hard to see how this arrangement would create opportunities for students.

Instead, it probably would reduce opportunity for those students who could not afford to enter the lottery and were left behind in a school that would be several thousand dollars poorer.

Including religious schools creates another set of problems. While the Supreme Court says that it’s not necessarily a constitutional violation to use public money to educate students in sectarian schools, that doesn’t mean that it is wise.

Religious schools could say they are open to all comers, but their curriculum likely would not attract people outside the faith. As with nonsectarian private schools, this would “create” choices for people who already have them, and reduce resources for people who don’t have a sectarian school of their faith to choose.

Other options

Charter schools — public schools created to meet a community need and held accountable by state standards — are a much better way of introducing choice outside of school districts. Maine’s new law, passed last year, has not been given a chance to succeed, and it should remain the focus of school choice efforts for now.

School choice, however, is overrated as a vehicle for the kind of change Maine needs.

Families should have practical options when they are available, but even the most robust school choice programs will leave most students in traditional public schools because many parts of the state have no options. Making traditional schools better should remain the focus of school reform.

Improving and rewarding teaching, creating alternative programs within schools and forming regional partnerships — whether they are within or outside official school districts — will affect far more students than a voucher program.

LePage and Bowen are right to explore ways to break through the rigid education orthodoxy to create more opportunities for families, but when it comes to private and religious schools, they should show more restraint.

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