Maine’s Town Tuitioning Program is the second oldest school choice program in the nation. The program, launched in 1873, allows students from a town without a public school to attend either a public school in another town or a non-religious private school. On this page, you can learn more about the program details, funding, eligibility, legal history and more.
Many small towns in Maine do not operate high schools, and some do not have elementary schools. Students in those towns are eligible for vouchers to attend public schools in other towns or non-religious private schools, even outside the state. The “sending” towns pay tuition directly to the “receiving” schools. Although most towns allow parents to choose which schools will receive their students, some towns send all their students to one school.
Sending towns pay tuition directly to the receiving schools. Public schools in Maine have a tuition rate that sending towns must pay when their students are tuitioned at public schools. For private schools, the tuition rate for elementary students may not exceed the average per-pupil cost on a statewide basis. For secondary pupils, the tuition rate is Maine’s average per-pupil cost for secondary education in the previous year, plus an additional payment intended to cover depreciation of private schools’ buildings. Parents may supplement that voucher with their own money. Voucher values vary from county to county based on current per-student funding levels. Sending towns have the option of adding on to the voucher an amount worth as high as 115 percent of the per-student funding in total, but may not reduce the voucher below the state’s tuition rates.
Students must live in Maine and reside in an identified sending town that does not have a public school at their grade level. Although most towns allow parents to choose which schools will receive their students, some towns send all their students to one school.
Maine’s town tuitioning is very restrictive on eligibility; students qualify only if their home districts do not have public schools. On funding power, Maine’s program does well, as per-pupil funding can equal the average cost statewide and even can go as high as 115 percent of the child’s current funding. Although the program does not place overly burdensome regulations on private schools, it does prohibit participating families from choosing religious schools. Maine’s town tuitioning would benefit more families by removing that restriction and not limiting student eligibility to their home districts’ schooling arrangements.
In 1993, the Maine Supreme Court upheld the home rule authority of towns over school budgets (which impact town tuitioning), holding that municipalities maintain some authority over education policy. School Committee of York v. York, 626 A.2d 935 (Me. 1993).
Although town tuitioning is constitutional, there have been many challenges regarding the exclusion of religious schools. In 1981, the Maine legislature banned religious schools from participating in the Town Tuitioning Program that was first established in 1873. In 1999, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the exclusion of religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review. Bagley v. Raymond School Department, 728 A.2d 127 (Me.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 947 (1999). The religious exclusion was also upheld in Strout v. Commissioner, Maine Department of Education, 178 F.3d 57 (1st Cir. 1999), and in Eulitt v. Maine Department of Education, 386 F.3d 344 (1st Cir. 2004).
After the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers in Cleveland, the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, and Maine families again asked a Maine court to overturn the 1981 law, but the exclusion of religious options was upheld. Anderson v. Town of Durham, 895 A.2d 944 (Me. 2006), cert. denied, 127 S.Ct. 661, 166 L.Ed.2d 512. Religious exclusion was later upheld in Joyce v. State, 951 A.2d 69 (Me. 2008).
In light of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), on August 21, 2018, the Institute for Justice and First Liberty Institute filed litigation on behalf of parents in Maine who continue to seek religious liberty in their choice of education. Plaintiffs claim that town tuitioning is a generally available public benefit program and that by excluding religious sectarian options in its tuitioning program, there is a violation of the Free Exercise, Establishment, Free Speech, Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This case is pending. Carson v. Hasson, Jr, Case 1:18-cv-00327-DBH.
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