We all desire the power to choose our friends, hobbies, careers, spouse and house. But to make choices, we need multiple options. Without options, we can’t choose — and if those choices are important, we likely feel powerless and stuck. All of us want to choose how we invest our energies working and playing; and “all of us” includes children.

Roger Brainerd

Children of school age are required by law to spend time working and playing in school — in most cases a school assigned by zip code. Often, children are content with their assigned school and their parents are happy, seeing their children succeeding in their academic and social development.

In other cases, however, children are not content or thriving in their assigned school. These children may have academic issues, social issues, medical issues, mental health issues, or family issues. They may have unique, competing interests and talents. They may be shy, or over-anxious, or someone might be picking on them because they are “different.” Children needing a change in their educational situation should have options; if not, they may feel powerless and stuck, desperate for another choice.

What are the options for families whose children feel this way? If parents have sufficient time, money and resources, they can choose homeschooling or private school or move to a different district. But for many Maine families, those are not viable options.

A few free options exist within public education, but we need more of them. For instance, some families can choose from Maine’s two public magnet high schools, but those have limited seats, selective admission, and they are only accessible to students who live close by or are willing to live away from home.

Public charter schools are another free option for students. Unfortunately, these are few and far between and, due to a 2019 law, the number of charters in Maine has been capped at the current 10. Eight of Maine’s 10 charter schools are only accessible in some geographic areas, though two are online schools that can enroll students grades 7 to 12 statewide. But demand for public charter schools is greater than the number of open seats and hundreds of Maine children are on wait lists for charter schools, so a child may need to enter a lottery and win in order to attend.

Our public education system is charged with providing all children between the ages of 4 and 21 with free, appropriate schooling. That’s a daunting endeavor, especially with the increasingly diverse needs of children today, limited financial resources and Maine’s demographic and economic changes, especially in rural areas. Still, there is no excuse for not addressing the needs of all children.

Today, when Maine families need more public school options, the options they have are shrinking. At a time when small district schools in rural areas are threatened with closure, why does the Maine Legislature pass a law to prevent more chartered public schools from opening?

Public education options exist in a highly politicized context where children too often become powerless pawns, caught in a struggle between competing adult political interests over funding priorities, governance and operational control. This year’s National School Choice Week (Jan. 26-Feb. 1) is a time to talk, realistically, about how critical public school options are for Maine children.

Representatives in Augusta should abandon their partisan attacks on new public charter schools and create a policy environment that supports all public school options. Every single Maine child deserves a choice, if they need one, to experience a learning environment that supports them in maximizing their unique, innate potential. Our society can afford no less.

Roger Brainerd is the executive director of Maine Association for Charter Schools.

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