Bangor Christian Schools sophomore Olivia Carson, 15, of Glenburn, Maine, left, stands with her mother Amy while getting dropped off on the first day of school on August 28, 2018 in Bangor, Maine. The Carsons were one of three Maine families that challenged the prohibition on using public money to pay tuition at religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled that Maine can't exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education in towns that don't have public schools. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

I’ve got a great idea to improve education in Maine. Let’s limit parents’ choices.

OK, that is sarcastic. Conceptually, that has bounced around a few different school districts throughout our state over the past couple weeks.

In a southern Maine district crossing county borders, several members of the community petitioned for the school board to remove certain books from school libraries. In effect, this sought to limit parental choice as the district had a policy enabling parents to “veto” their children from taking out any particular book.

Meanwhile, Portland has permitted rising high school freshmen to select their preferred school – Portland High or Deering – for decades. The school board is considering limiting their ability to make that choice.

While these two proposed policies come at it from different starting points, both – at their core – seek to place community concerns above the decision-making of parents. It follows Democrats’ passage of a law that makes it illegal to share Zoom school lessons without written permission.  

This is the background for Paul LePage’s as-of-yet-unveiled plan for a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

Most parents I know love their children dearly. They want to do right by them. But what “right” looks like can be a bit different for every family.

Back-to-school season creates a lot of angst. That is certainly true for kids, particularly younger ones. But, as a parent, we aren’t immune either. Will they make friends? Will they get enough to eat? Will they enjoy it? Will they learn math, reading, writing, and history?  

Letting them stay with others for long periods of time – even at school – is a serious trust exercise.  

A lot of that trust was shaken during the pandemic. Some parents saw first-hand lessons their students were being taught – and they had real concerns. Other parents believed that the continuous forced closure of schools, or enduring mask mandates, were severely negatively impacting their children.

On the latter, those concerned parents were probably right. The COVID restrictions appear to be significantly correlated to substantial drops in assessment scores for fourth graders across the country.  

That brings us back to parental choice.

One of the principles likely to ground LePage’s plan is the idea that a student’s zip code should not constrain their educational aspirations. Giving parents more opportunity to find the right fit for their children places power back in the home. Kids do not get to choose the circumstances they are born into.

Providing a wider array of educational options can reduce the strife in communities and households. Don’t want your kids to go to a school with certain literature? Find one that meets your child’s needs. Want to attend a school that reaches a different conclusion balancing in-person instruction and pandemic risks? Find one.

For families in a small number of Maine municipalities, they are provided that freedom. It was expanded to include religious schools by the recent Supreme Court case known as “Carson v. Makin.” Choice is 180 degrees from where Portland is considering going.

The vast majority of families in Maine have limited school options. Housing costs limit where people can afford to live. Most people need to work, which takes homeschooling out of the equation. Truancy laws require kids to go to some type of school. Private institutions cost money.  

Which leaves families bound to their local school district.  

Paul LePage is going to announce his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” in the weeks ahead. We will see what it entails. But giving parents’ more choices and more opportunities to be actively engaged in the course of their child’s education is a good thing.  

Whatever books they decide to read.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.