The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a Maine school choice case this summer could have a broader impact on the state’s education system than described by the court or school officials at the time.

The high court’s June ruling in Carson v. Makin said communities that pay for students to go to secular private schools must also pay for them to go to religious schools. It was seen as a step toward expanding school choice nationwide. And in Maine, it set the stage for religious schools to receive taxpayer money in the form of tuition for the first time in over four decades.

The court’s 45-page ruling and the state Attorney General’s Office statement responding to it indicated the impact in Maine would be limited because school choice exists only in a small number of rural Maine towns that don’t have a high school or a contract with a school administrative unit that has a high school.

“Approximately 5,000 Maine children live in districts that neither have a public school nor a contract with a school in a nearby district,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey wrote in response to the Carson v. Makin decision. “To ensure that these children have access to a free public education, they are permitted to attend at public expense a public or private school of their choice.”

But Frey’s statement didn’t encompass the full scope of school choice in Maine or describe the full impact of the ruling. Some towns around the state that are part of school administrative units with high schools also offer school choice because of a special exception in state law that allows them to use taxpayer money to send students to private schools even when there is a public option available.

The state says it does not know how many communities have maintained school choice under that law, but there are a handful of such communities in suburban Southern and Midcoast Maine. The Department of Education says on its website that residents would have to call their town offices to find out whether a municipality or school administrative unit offers school choice.

The AG’s office declined repeated requests for an interview about school choice in Maine or Frey’s statement responding to the decision.

The reason for the quirk in the state’s education landscape is that in the late 2000s, as part of an initiative to shrink administrative expenses, school districts were required to consolidate. Some municipalities pushed back, worried they would lose their long-held tradition of giving families the option to choose high schools. To get their buy-in, the state created a carve-out allowing municipalities that had school choice prior to consolidation to keep it, even if they joined a school administrative unit with a high school.

Maine law allows school districts that were grandfathered to offer school choice despite having a public high school option, which still caps the number of municipalities that can send students to private and religious schools. But the fact that school choice exists in more than just a limited number of rural communities without high schools of their own or contracts — and in towns within commuting distance of Maine’s large cities — brings into question how school choice could expand in future years as the state’s population grows, how much public taxpayer money could wind up flowing to private and religious institutions, and how this might fit into the growing national movement, driven largely by conservative groups, to increase school choice and include religious schools among the options.

Last month, following the Carson v. Makin ruling, the state approved Cheverus High School, a Jesuit school in Portland with an enrollment of about 370, to participate in the publicly funded school choice program. No other religious school in the state has yet applied to participate, in part because the schools have to agree to ban discrimination in hiring and enrollment.

Cheverus had to pledge in its application to qualify for public funding that it will not discriminate in hiring or enrollment, including based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Maine Department of Education said it did not require any proof of compliance from Cheverus, but that it would respond to any future discrimination complaints the way it would with a public school.

Cheverus officials refused to answer questions about the state’s approval or its plans to take advantage of the new funding source. It would not say whether it had to change any hiring or enrollment policies to qualify for the program.

“We can confirm that the Maine Department of Education approved our application to be an in-state private school that can receive tuition reimbursement,” Cheverus’ president, the Rev. Robert J. Pecoraro, said in a written statement. “Now, eligible families who live in a school district that does not operate a public secondary school can consider Cheverus as a state-approved option for high school.”

Small town, many options

Meanwhile, Raymond, a town of 5,000 residents 45 minutes northwest of Portland, is one of the Maine municipalities that is part of a school administrative unit with a high school, but also offers school choice. Raymond students have the option of going to Windham High School in their own school district, Regional School Unit 14, or leaving the district and using taxpayer money to help defray the cost of attending another public or approved private school.

This year, 40 Raymond high school students, about 25% of the town’s high school-aged kids, are opting for school choice, according to RSU 14. Twenty-five students attend other public schools, including nearby Gray-New Gloucester and Poland Regional high schools, and 15 attend private schools such as Waynflete, Hebron Academy, Gould Academy and North Yarmouth Academy.

Raymond also has two students attending Cheverus, according to RSU 14 Superintendent Christopher Howell. Those students’ families had been paying the full cost of tuition — about $23,000 a year before financial aid. But they would now be legally entitled to use RSU 14 tuition money to pay about half of the cost. They have not yet filled out their school choice paperwork so they are not included in the district’s school choice count, Howell said. He did not provide their names and those families could not be contacted for this story.

For each student that attends a school other than Windham High, RSU 14 and Raymond will reimburse the receiving school, paying about $12,500 a year for a private school and $12,000 for another public school. RSU 14 takes on almost the entire cost, while the town covers a small portion.

Altogether RSU 14 is expected to spend $465,000 sending students to other districts this year. Assuming the two Cheverus students fill out school choice paperwork to get their tuition reimbursed, the district will pay around $25,000 to Cheverus.

When municipalities and school administrative units consolidated in the late 2000s, many communities that previously had school choice decided to ditch it, arguing it made more sense to invest in one school rather than many. But others, like Raymond, kept it.

School choice had been offered to Raymond residents for as long as anyone could remember. People liked having options and felt like school choice was part of their culture, town and district representatives told the Press Herald.

“School choice is kind of synonymous with Raymond,” said Town Manager Don Willard.

In addition to being rooted in Raymond’s history, school choice is a selling point for the town. Multiple town leaders said people come to Raymond because they want school choice. Local real estate agents said if prospective buyers have children, they make sure to let them know Raymond is a school-choice town.

“Raymond’s school choice is very appealing to people,” said Jocelyn O’Rourke-Shane of Maine Real Estate Choice. “As a Realtor, we’re not allowed to ask them if they have children, but if they tell us, we say, ‘Well, there are great schools here and school choice.’ ”

Other Maine towns that retained school choice did so for a variety of reasons.

Windsor, for example, is part of RSU 12, which doesn’t have a high school of its own but contracts with Wiscasset. But for students who live in Windsor, a ride to the high school in Wiscasset could be as long as an hour and a half on a school bus making frequent stops to pick up kids. So having school choice that allows students to attend Cony High School in Augusta or Erskine Academy, a private school in China, may be more convenient for students and their families.

It’s unclear exactly how much public taxpayer money goes to private schools because the state does not track it. Students that take part in school choice are still considered the responsibility of their home district and are counted in their home district’s student population.

School choice is not new in Maine

Although the prevalence of school choice in Maine isn’t completely clear, it has a deep history in the state. Representatives from Raymond and other school-choice towns said they can’t remember a time when high school choice wasn’t available.

Howell and several Raymond town representatives said the small town next to Sebago Lake has had school choice “forever.”

School choice has been part of Maine’s education system for over a century. In 1873, the Maine Legislature said towns were allowed to pay tuition to private schools to educate their residents. In 1909, the Legislature required municipalities without a high school to pay tuition for their students to attend a public school or other approved high school.

For decades, religious schools were allowed to participate in the program. In 1981, however, courts decided that sending taxpayer money to religious schools in the form of tuition violated the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause, or the separation of church and state. That decision stood for more than 40 years until the Supreme Court in June ruled that excluding religious schools was discriminatory and violated the constitutional right to religious practice.

The Supreme Court decision was applauded by those who have been working to increase school choice opportunities in the U.S. education system.

School choice has long been popular among conservatives who argue that parents should have more say in their children’s education, and say choice would force schools to compete with one another, improving the quality of education. The concept has become more popular in recent years and states across the country have increased school-choice opportunities.

In West Virginia, almost all students are eligible to receive state money to pay for private school tutoring and other education-related expenses. Students are entitled to get as much tuition money as their local schools would spend to educate them.

In New Hampshire, students from families earning less than three times the federal poverty line can access state funds to pay for private school, online courses, textbooks, tutoring and more.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in July signed into law the nation’s most expansive school-choice program. All families will be able to spend their children’s state-funded education dollars — about $7,000 per student per year — on any approved education expenses, including tuition at private and religious schools, tutoring and educational materials.

Some view this as as a win for education.

“I believe places like Arizona could serve as a model for Maine,” said Jacob Posik, head of communications at the Maine Policy Institute (previously the Maine Heritage Policy Institute), a conservative nonprofit that advocates for increasing school choice in the state.

“School choice maximizes the potential of the student because they are not beholden to the quality of the school district,” Posik said. “We believe the money should follow the child and the parent and child should be able to decide what form of education will maximize their future potential. Everyone should have a variety of opportunities.”

Posik also said that school choice could help improve education overall. “If people want to go to one school over another we should look at why. If a school is failing students year over year then we should be changing something,” he said. “The best way to inject change and transparency in that system is to give everybody an option of where they can go to school. That’s how education innovates and improves.”

But others say it doesn’t work that way in reality.

“School choice sounds great, but it only advantages the most advantaged and puts the most disadvantaged students at an even further disadvantage,” said Adam Howard, a Colby College professor who studies issues of social class in education.

Howard said this is primarily because every dollar of public money going to private schools is another dollar taken away from public schools, diverting funds from public education and giving more resources to private schools that don’t need them, ultimately making education more unequal.

Howard also said that utilizing school choice requires money and other resources, and the ability to navigate the system.

To best use school choice, one has to understand the different options in what is likely to be a complicated system, have the time and resources to provide transportation to their children and, in the case of private schools, be able to pay the difference between what the state covers and the total tuition, and be prepared to compete in a competitive admissions process.

“I’m very concerned about school choice,” Howard said. “The rhetoric is that school choice provides more opportunities and empowers parents, but that’s just empty promises. School choice financially drains public school funding, which is already limited, and gives it to people and institutions that don’t need our help.”

School choice funding system

In Maine, 55% of the total statewide cost of education is paid by the state. Local communities must raise the remaining funds.

The state decides each year how much state and local funding is needed for each school administrative unit to provide its students with an adequate education.

The state uses that number to figure out the average cost of educating a single pupil in Maine. That average cost is the maximum amount that a municipality and/or school district is responsible for reimbursing a public school or approved high school.

The tuition rate for this year has yet to be set, but in the 2021-22 school year it was $12,480.36 for most of the state’s private high schools and between around $9,000 and $11,773 for most public high schools.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.