After reading our previous four posts on this topic, some still might not feel the situation merits much alarm. The American public school is an institution that has stood for hundreds of years — and this might lead one to believe that it is assured of healthily surviving hundreds more. The fact that virtual learning is being presented as a choice tends tamp down the level of concern even further. Only those parents who wish to will withdraw their children from public school to attend virtual school, right?
After the first few dominoes fall, the others don’t have much choice, however. In this post, I’ll argue that allowing the choice of virtual schools isn’t simply a matter of individual choice, but is also a choice that, once made by some, will reduce the choice available to others. A choice that will ultimately threaten the survival of rural Maine schools — and in many cases of the rural communities themselves.
Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, school choice is already alive and well in America. Private schools, religious schools, home schools, correspondence schools, online schools, prep schools, and charter schools are included among the available options. The real debate isn’t about the “choice” of where students attend classes — but whether taxpayer funds should be withdrawn from the local school if the student decides to go elsewhere.
For an example of how one the choice of one family might affect many others, let’s look at the loss of 15 students from a 500-student RSU. Approximately $150,000 in state and local funding is then removed from the local school budget. As a result, the RSU cuts two teachers. ( A likely additional side effect is that the teachers move out of town and there are now two less taxpayers in town and 4 fewer students attending school.) The school also loses its art program. Ten more students withdraw to attend virtual school or a nearby RSU that still does have an art program. The RSU loses an additional $100,000 and cuts an additional two teachers. The school is now in a death spiral of diminishing revenues, program cuts, and shrinking enrollment. Due to economies of scale, even with cuts, per pupil expenditures are sure to climb. At some point especially since many of their children may already be attending elsewhere, local taxpayers are likely to feel they can no longer support a public school — and the doors will be closed for the last time.
When a community loses its public school, it loses more than that. It loses everything from school plays to softball games to places to hold bean suppers. It loses a school song and a set of alumni and a set of traditions. It loses a hub and gathering place for parents and children. It loses a set of teachers and their families who must now go elsewhere. It loses a place for public meetings. It loses a prime selling point for new families looking to move into the region.
The survival of Maine’s rural schools and communities are already threatened. Given current economic trends, the financial pressures facing rural communities will likely get worse before they get better. Now, more than ever, the people of Maine need to do the opposite of what LePage and Bowen would have us do. The people of Maine need to stand up and protect our rural schools.
Some states have now mandated that students take at least one digital course as a condition of graduation. Maine would be wise to do the opposite — and pass legislation stating that every student has the right to receive 80 percent or more of their education from a real live teacher.