First of two parts

SACO, Maine — In Maine, the state with the oldest population in the nation, some public schools struggling with declining enrollment, increasing costs and tight budgets are now pursuing solutions far from their communities, across faraway oceans.

Maine state universities, private colleges, and private high schools have courted students from abroad for many years. Now, as more Maine public high schools step into the business of attracting the world’s students, a significant inconsistency within federal immigration policy is hampering these important efforts, according to school officials.

Nonetheless, schools such as Mt. Blue High School in Farmington and Orono High School are making renewed investments in international recruitment with the goals of restoring programs and creating student housing. School officials say this effort heralds a new era of diversity and worldliness for Maine students and schools.

There is a financial benefit as well, both from the tuition paid by some international students and an associated economic impact. For example: Although Maine has the second smallest number of international college students in the country, according to the Institute of International Education, their annual economic impact is still estimated at $44 million.

The high interest in attracting international students, and high stakes, are reflected in the fact that Gov. Paul LePage is scheduled to head overseas in late October to visit China and Japan as part of a delegation that will tour and learn about business and educational institutions in those countries. LePage declined to comment for this story.

China, a nation that places a huge value on the American education system, has been a longstanding target for Maine educators. Today, many schools that established their programs focused primarily around Chinese students are now also looking to diversify and draw students from elsewhere.

“This whole thing is such a positive story for Maine, because the successes of schools in the state have really shown that families are willing to send their children this far away from home, and invest a good amount of their resources and trust in this community to take care of their kids,” said Mark Powers, admissions director for Thornton Academy in Saco, which has one of the largest secondary education international programs in the state. “That’s incredibly important.”

Unequal system

There are two main ways for an international student to get into the U.S. — F-1 and J-1 visas.

J-1 students, more commonly referred to as “exchange students” seeking a cultural experience, are limited to one year in the U.S. Their tuition is typically covered by the local school district, as it would cover a local student, and they have little say over where in the U.S. they end up studying.

F-1 students, the target of these new recruitment efforts by public high schools, are required to pay tuition, as well as room and board, and can pick the school they wish to attend. There is no annual quota or cap on student visas in the U.S., either F-1 or J-1, so any qualified student is eligible to receive one.

But when a student receives an F-1, or education, visa, to study in the United States a disparity exists: If the school they choose is public, they are still limited to one year of attendance. This same cap does not exist for the nation’s academies or private schools.

Thornton Academy, for example, encourages its international students to stay for at least two or three years. Most do.

“We’re not looking to accept students for a one-year experience,” Headmaster Rene Menard said. “This is not an exchange program. This is not an opportunity for students to just come over and get a taste of what American life is like.”

The guarantee of a longer cultural and educational immersion can make private school a far more attractive option for international families with the means to send their children overseas.

Camden Hills Regional High School has between five and 10 international students per year, according to Principal Nick Ithomitis. The program started six years ago, after the school projected a steep enrollment decline — which never happened.

Instead, Camden Hills now uses its program — and tuition from F-1 students — to fund student exchanges and build “sister school” partnerships around the globe. For example, the school has established scholarships that allow its economically disadvantaged students to go on short, two-week cultural exchanges abroad.

Ithomitis said the one-year limit on F-1 students puts public schools at a disadvantage. Without that limit, he believes the program could be twice the size, and the school might have built a dormitory for its international students, rather than relying on homestay families.

“I’m not sure we’re there anymore,” Ithomitis said during a recent interview. “We’ve lost out on some really great kids because of this rule.”

Why is this the case?

What’s unclear is why this difference exists.

State and federal education officials couldn’t provide an easy answer, nor could the State Department, which would only confirm the 1-year rule exists. Multiple school administrators and groups that study and promote international education trends also didn’t have an answer.

Maine’s U.S. senators, contacted about the rule, sought information from the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, which shed some light on the history.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This law stipulated that students with F-1 visas could only attend public schools for one year, and required F-1 visa recipients to pay full tuition.

The change was aimed at ending what apparently was a common practice, especially in southern states, in which immigrant families would pay for an apartment in the U.S. and leave a student there alone to attend public school, according to Congressional Research Service.

Students with F-1 visas also had to pay full tuition, but were never subjected to the one-year limitation. Officials at Congressional Research Service told the Bangor Daily News they couldn’t find a solid explanation why this policy exists in their research.

Public and private school officials in Maine say they can only guess at the reasons why the one-year rule was applied to public schools, while private schools avoided it.

Some believe the reason could be that private schools nationally had more experience with boarding students. Public schools tend to me more cash-strapped and rely on their communities and taxpayers to fund improvements needed to launch large international programs.

Others differentiate between the missions of public and private schools, arguing a public school’s priority should be to educate local students, rather than bringing in students from abroad.

There’s also the belief that national private school organizations might just have had more lobbying leverage than public school advocates as the laws were being crafted. It also simply could have resulted from the fact that the federal and state departments of education hold more regulatory authority over public schools.

Regardless of the reasons behind the limitation on public schools, officials say it has put them at a disadvantage or served as an inconvenience as they try to spark or grow their international programs. Efforts to change it have faltered repeatedly.

The Maine School Boards Association pressed this issue back in 2010 after its annual assembly. Millinocket School District was championing its recruitment of Chinese students to help bolster flagging enrollment numbers and revenue in the wake of an exodus of families that followed the shuttering of the town’s mill.

Stearns High School’s international efforts garnered international attention when it was featured in a 2010 New York Times article, the year before it launched its program.

Superintendent Frank Boynton makes multiple trips to China each year, working with partner schools. Earlier this year, he projected the school would receive $150,000 in revenue generated by Chinese student attendance.

The Maine School Boards Association drafted a letter to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins calling on her to propose legislation to lift the limit and allow longer educational visas at public schools.

“The law change would benefit not only Millinocket, but other public school systems in Maine that are looking to recruit from abroad,” then-MSBA President Maureen King wrote, calling the policy “discriminatory and inequitable.” The association holds that stance today.

Collins responded in April 2011 by writing a letter to her colleagues in Congress, urging them to support legislation that would change the “illogical dichotomy” that restricts public schools to one year with F-1 students.

That legislation was the Strengthening America’s Public Schools Through Promoting Foreign Investment Act of 2011, sponsored by Collins and U.S. Sen. Charles “Chuck” Schumer, D-New York.

The bill was never enacted, and five years later, the law persists.

Another bid to lift the one-year limit on public schools was lumped into a comprehensive immigration reform bill that failed to pass muster in 2014.

“Our public schools in Maine and across our country should have the same opportunity as our private schools to welcome international students,“ Collins and U.S. Sen. Angus King said in a joint statement. “In addition to the cultural benefits of leveling this playing field, foreign students are required to pay the full cost of their education to the public school system, providing helpful investments in financially struggling public schools.”

Given the lack of collaborative action surrounding immigration reform in recent years, it seems unlikely the proposal will be approved as long as it’s lumped in with larger, more controversial policy proposals.

Boynton expects seven Chinese students to attend Stearns High School next year, plus as many as five international students from other countries in Europe and South America.

He says his recruitment efforts would be greatly eased by eliminating the one-year limit on public schools.

“We’re hopeful that this happens soon,” Boynton said. “I think it would finally put us [and the academies] on a level playing field.”

Next: Despite visa rules, Maine public schools push overseas recruitment.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.