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Expand Maine's Education Options

By Betsy P. Chapman

July 22, 2002

School choice is increasing competition around the country and showing that competition in education improves student performance and stretches the tax dollar. Interestingly, Maine is leading the nation in benefiting form education competition.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently approved the Cleveland school choice program, which pays partial tuition to private schools of the parents' choosing. This has enabled many parents to select an alternative to their local public school, and has increased the number of schools competing for students. The public voucher pays 90 percent of tuition, with the parents paying the balance. Other options in the Cleveland plan include transfer to charter school, magnet school or after-school tutoring, and are free to parents.

The average Cleveland tax-funded school voucher for private schools is about $1,600, leaving more than $3,600 with their public schools to improve the program for remaining students. Florida's public voucher plan leaves $2,738 for the students who chose to remain in public schools, while Milwaukee leaves $2,016 behind. (The New York Times, June 28) This additional money left in public schools by these schools. It allows for smaller class sizes, resources to help all students succeed, the ability to address teacher quality, and thus raises expectations for every child. Preliminary studies of these programs show improvements in students across the board.

Maine is benefiting from its own voucher program, as our unique solution is sparsely populated areas, in use for more than a hundred years. In Maine towns without a school the town pays tuition to another school, often of the parents' selection. Seventy-six percent of Maine high schools accept town tuition students and 30 percent of Maine towns pay tuition for some or all of their students to attend school. A recent study by Dr. Christopher Hammons for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation has looked at the academic performance of Maine's students. Dr. Hammons asked the question, "Does competition improve student academic performance?" He found that the answer is yes.

Controlling for three factors—per pupil spending, poverty rate and population density—Dr. Hammons found that only relevant factor was nearness to the tow tutoring program. Hammons examined state test results and found "that high schools that are more exposed to the town tuition process tend to perform better than high school with little involvement in the town tuitioning process." Some may suggest that this success stems from parents picking the best schools, rather than the schools improving as a result of competition. But Hammons found that, "It is the exposure to school choice that seems to matter, not school demographics, location or total spending."

Dr. Hammons concluded that "when parents choose where to spend their tuition dollars they seem to choose wisely." He found the "positive relationship between tuition money and test scores reveals that at minimum parents are choosing those schools that can produce better scores with their tuition money rather than schools that produce lower scores or schools where the money makes no difference."

Many are concerned about Maine's disparity in school funding between Maine's wealthy and poor school districts. However, Dr.Hammon found that low-income students in "high competition" areas outperformed low-income students in "no competition" areas. In order to take advantage of the benefits competition brings to education, our Legislature and new governor should immediately take steps to eliminate the "no competition" areas, removing the impediment for thousands of students.

Beyond finding that Maine's public voucher programs improves a school's success, Dr. Hammons also found a significant cost saving. If a "school simply wanted to purchase that gain in test scores by increasing per pupil spending, it would require an additional $909 per student." Maine would have to "increase current per pupil spending by 13 percent on average to create the same effect that competition already produces for free." This would total "roughly $200 million." Competition is stretching our education dollar. (See www.friedmanfoundation.com)

In order for Maine to reap the benefits of competition, we must increase education options beyond our successful town tuitioning program and create some type of cost sharing between parents and taxpayers. This could be a partial tax refund for parents who take responsibility for educating their children', as Minnesota has for more than 20 years or, because not all parents can afford to pay for tuition, taxpayers and businesses could receive a tax credit to contribute to scholarship funds serving low-income students, like Arizona.

The children of Maine have the right to a good education. The time has come to expand Maine's education options now that the air has cleared on the constitutional status of public vouchers with the Cleveland decision. A starting point in Maine is to eliminate the "no competition" areas and with a variety of successful models nationally, we can select plans proven to increase competition. This is an important step to continuously improve Maine education and stop spending taxes inefficiently.

Betsy P. Chapman is president of the Maine Children's Scholarship Fund
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