Jeff Bryant is a professional journalist who has written extensively about the failures of corporate-style school reform. This story recounts the experience of a family that accepted vouchers in Maine and learned that school choice meant that students abandon their civil rights protections when they enroll in a private school. Please open the link and read the complete article.

The harrowing story of a Maine family shows the potential perils families face when they transfer to privately run schools that are less subject to government oversight.

By Jeff Bryant

“I am the type of parent who always made sure my kids had the good teachers and always took the right classes,” said Esther Kempthorne in an interview with Our Schools. So, in 2014, when she moved with her husband and two daughters to their new home in Washington County, Maine, in a bucolic corner of the state, near the Canadian border, she made it a top priority to find a school that would be the right educational fit for their children.

“We settled in Washington County hoping to give our children the experience of attending one high school, making lasting friendships, and finally putting down some roots,” said Esther’s husband, Nathan, whose career in the military had sent the Kempthorne family traveling the world, changing schools more than 20 times in 17 years. “Both of our children were born on military bases while I was on active duty with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force,” said Nathan, whose role in military intelligence often meant that he was deployed to high-risk assignments in war zones.

“We said that when we got to Maine, we weren’t going to keep bouncing from school to school,” said Esther.

But after some firsthand experience with the education programs provided by the local public schools, the Kempthornes decided to investigate other options the state offers. One of those options was the state’s provision that allows parents who live in a district that doesn’t have a school matching their child’s grade level the choice to leave the public system and transfer their children to private schools, with the “home” public school district picking up the cost of tuition and transportation, subject to state allowance.

Because the rural district the Kempthornes lived in did not have a high school, they took advantage of that option to enroll their daughters—at taxpayer expense—in Washington Academy, an elite private school founded in 1792 that offersa college track curriculum and access to classes taught by faculty members from a nearby university.

Their decision to leave the public school system for Washington Academy seemed all the better when Esther, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, got a full-time job teaching Spanish at the school.

Thinking back on how the Kempthorne family negotiated the school choice landscape in Maine, Nathan recalled, “I thought we were finally going to be okay.”

But the Kempthornes weren’t okay. Far from it, in 2021, the Kempthornes found themselves in the front seat of their car while they were traveling in another state, using Nathan’s iPhone to call in via Zoom and provide testimony to a Maine legislative committee on why Washington Academy, and other schools like it, pose significant threats to families like theirs and how the state needs to more heavily regulate privately operated schools that get taxpayer funding.

Fighting through tears, they spoke of “racism” and “bullying” at Washington Academy and the school administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address the school’s culture.

In his written testimony, Nathan wrote of “a disturbing pattern of systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, harassment, and bullying behavior based on race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, and sexual orientation that has occurred for years at [Washington Academy].”

In her letter of resignation from the school, presented to the committee, Esther wrote of a school environment where she and her daughters, who identify as Hispanic, experienced “racist, anti-immigrant sentiments.” She wrote, “As the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric became more mainstream, we had to teach our daughters how to defend themselves without our intervention, and they did. However, such self-defense has been exhausting and stressful for my children, and it should not be their responsibility to constantly deflect harassment; rather they should be guaranteed a safe educational environment by school leaders.”

Although their daughters eventually graduated from Washington Academy and went on to college, the family became totally uprooted because of their experience at the school. Nine years after building their dream home in rural Maine, they now find themselves living in an apartment in New York City, embroiled in a years-long battle with Washington Academy and Maine officials, which has absorbed countless hours of their time and thousands of dollars of their life savings.

Esther has been unable to reenter the classroom as a full-time teacher due to the lingering effects of the traumatic experiences she had from teaching at Washington Academy, and both parents and daughters speak of long-term adverse mental health effects stemming from the years they spent at the school.

“We sold everything,” Nathan said in his spoken testimony to the committee. “We lost everything in your state and we left for our safety. Our children are completely traumatized. They lost all their friends.”

The Kempthornes’ story about the consequences of leaving the public education system for a private school is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a system designed to provide parents with taxpayer-supported private school options fails to consider the potential risks when students and parents transfer to these schools that are less subject to government oversight.

Their story is even more significant given the current trend across the country where states have increasingly been adopting charter schools, voucher programs, education savings accounts, “backpack funding,” and other so-called school choice options that use taxpayer money to fund alternatives to the public system.

These options are favored by politicians on the right and left, and, at least one state, Arizona, has a voucher program called the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, which every student in the state is eligible to tap.

This rapid expansion of school choice options is taking place even though there is ample anecdotal evidence and a growing body of research showing that parents in a school choice marketplace often make questionable choices they sometimes come to regret.

As the Kempthornes came to learn, private education providers that are not governed within the public domain pose legal problems that parents often either don’t know about or don’t understand, and local and state government officials often either have no authority to intercede on parents’ behalf or are reluctant to assert what little authority they do have.

The Kempthorne family’s saga, which is still enduring, is a sharp counterpoint to advocates who promote school choice as a simplistic solution for families without acknowledging that transferring taxpayer-funded education services from the public to the private realm will actually complicate parents’ and students’ lives.

Bryant goes in to describe a school culture that was implicitly racist and unwilling to act in complaints of racism.

Washington Academy is one of several Maine “town academies” that benefit from what’s known as “town tuitioning,” in which private schools receive public funding from districts that “tuition out” students to the schools rather than paying to educate them in their “home” district. These Maine academies had from 80.4 to 99.3 percent of their student enrollments funded with public dollars in the fiscal year 2020-2021. Most of them also obtain additional income by operating expensive residential programs that enroll students, often from countries outside the U.S.

The practice of using town tuitioning programs as alternatives to providing public schools started in Vermont, according to Education Week, but has since spread to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, as well as Maine.

Supporters of these programs call them a “model of educational choice,” according to Education Week, and although supporters of vouchers haven’t always held up town academies as their ideal, they’ve more recently been describing them as the “oldest school choice program in the nation” and calling for expanding them so that all students are eligible to attend the town academies.

But the rationale for having town academies and funding them with public money seems to no longer hold, if it ever did.

‘A Common Myth’

“A common myth is that town academies in New England exist in rural areas which have a scarcity of public schools due to the relatively low population density of families with school-aged children and a lack of funding to support district schools,” according to Bruce Baker, an education professor at the University of Miami in Florida. “But that’s not the reality.”

According to Baker, many of these schools started in the early 1800s, or earlier, as private secondary schools for their communities prior to the existence of public high schools “and in many cases,” prior to the creation of the nation’s system of public common schools. “Some, like Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, were originally funded by local businessmen,” he noted.

Given that origin, town academies that are in operation today are “holdovers,” according to Baker, “of what were once proxy public schools that never converted to district public schools,” although a few have, such as Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vermont, which converted from private to public in 2008.

Contrary to the town academy narrative, some of the schools are in communities that have sufficient populations to educate school-aged children. For instance, New Bedford Academy in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is located in a city with a population exceeding 100,000, according to the 2021 U.S. census. Norwich Free Academy is located in Norwich, Connecticut, a community with a population of more than 40,000.

Also, the notion that town academies are needed in Maine because public schools are few and far between seems hardly the case. “The distances between publicly funded town academies and competing public high schools in Maine is often negligible,” Nathan Kempthorne wrote in an email, pointing out that the distance between Washington Academy and Machias Memorial High School in Machias is only 4.2 miles, and John Bapst Memorial High School, a town academy in Bangor, is only 2.5 miles from Bangor High School and 2.1 miles from Brewer High School.

Public schools in rural communities are quite commonplace. “More than 9.3 million—or nearly one in five students in the U.S.—attend a rural school,” according to a 2019 reportby the Rural School and Community Trust. “This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined.”

Whereas rural public schools are subject to the same government oversight that all public schools are subject to, that oversight does not extend to private schools, even when they get a substantial portion of their funding from the public.

“In private schools, students end up losing basic constitutional rights and essentially don’t have due process rights,” Todd DeMitchell told Our Schools. DeMitchell is a professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester who studies laws governing school policies and the impact of court cases on these policies.

According to him, if the Kempthornes had their children enrolled in public schools they would have had access to certain rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, including Title 6, which addresses race, and Title 9, which addresses discrimination on the basis of sex. Washington Academy, being a private school, is exempt from these protections.

DeMitchell pointed to a 1987 decision by a federal courtthat ruled a private academy in New Hampshire had the right to fire a teacher who, contrary to school policy, grew a beard, because the school argued successfully that it was “not a state actor,” according to DeMitchell. That ruling’s logic has been extended to a potential 2023 U.S. Supreme Court case in which a North Carolina charter school is arguing that it has the right to require girl students to wear skirts at school because it also is not a state actor. (Charter schools are also privately operated schools that are funded almost exclusively with public money.)

Along with their problematic funding rationale, town academies also have issues with being truly diverse and inclusive schools. For instance, they’ve “long struggled” to serve students with disabilities, according to Baker. And the student populations of these town academies tend to be more white and affluent than their surrounding communities, with any purported claims of student diversity being largely due to their enrollments of international students in residential programs.

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Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.