It is graduation season. Throughout Maine, high school seniors are receiving diplomas en route to whatever comes next for them. Those continuing their education — rather than enlisting in the armed forces or joining the workforce — do so with a bit of irony. Why? In a word, choice.
For most students, their ZIP code is their destiny, as far as their high school options go. Some have opportunities to attend great private institutions, but it is not the norm. Live in Newport? You’re headed to Nokomis. Wilton? Buy a Mt. Blue Cougars sweatshirt. Whether the school is great or failing, that is where you are going to go.
Yet, the instant the diploma is placed into the hand of newly-minted graduates, their educational options expand exponentially. They can head to Orono for engineering, Farmington for teaching, or South Portland for a two-year nursing degree. Further, they aren’t limited to Maine; New England public schools participate in a program that offers discounts to residents of other nearby states.
Of course, like their high school tenure, they have an option to attend private schools. The difference? Tax dollars can be used to subsidize and support education at private colleges and universities. Pell Grants do not stop at the edge of public school campuses.
When it comes to higher education, individuals are free to seek out their own pace, their own interests, and make determinations about value and affordability. If a new graduate believes, at $50,000 a year, Bowdoin provides more value than Fort Kent at $7,000, they are free to choose it — taxpayers are putting the same grant funds towards both, and the student will need to pay for the premium they believe exists. But, if one of those seniors in Newport wants to attend Maine Central Institute instead of Nokomis, their family needs to get out the checkbook. What a difference a year makes.
This apparent contradiction has always astounded me when debates about school choice arise. American universities — both public and private — are widely-recognized as the best in the world and we have a lot of them. Students from countless countries flock to study here.
That does not mean our system is perfect. Tuition costs have grown 300 percent more than inflation since the 1970s, egged on by ever-increasing ranks of administration: assistants, deputies, and junior vice assistant deputies. And easy credit has exacerbated this tuition growth; when loans are easier to get in larger amounts, students become less sensitive to the price today. Yet despite problems, our higher educational system remains the undisputed champion of the world. And it is all predicated upon student choice.
Within secondary education — high schools — choice is not historically foreign to Maine. In 2009, the Obama Administration recognized this tradition of “tuitioning,” where towns without schools paid tuition on behalf of their students. It was often paid to the “town academies” like Foxcroft, Fryeburg, and Washington, or the public schools of other towns. Since then, it has expanded to other private institutions — as long as they do not dare profess a faith — provided the student’s town of residence does not have a high school. If there is a shortfall in tuition, the student and family need to cover the difference; they must decide if the education is worth the extra cost.
This early exercise in choice is inherently limited. Few families can afford room and board during high school, so the furthest away they can go is a reasonable drive from home. Yet it gives students a voice in their own education, a voice not constrained by what house their parents can afford.
But if their town has a high school? Tough luck. It doesn’t matter if students cannot read at grade level, the local kids must attend the town school unless they can be home schooled or write a check to a private school or neighboring public district. If they are lucky, they might be able to get into one of the public technical schools. Too bad their families can’t afford a house somewhere nicer.
Maybe, just maybe, we could consider offering more Maine students a chance to participate in their own destiny. Maybe that student in Newport should be able to choose Nokomis, MCI, Tri-County Technical, or Hermon. After all, if choice is not a valid way to deliver great education, we should probably dismantle the entire collegiate system in this nation.