Maine Schools in Focus: Our Schools at “Enrollment Saturation”

Editor: Gordon Donaldson

Over much of the 20th century, one goal dominated public education in Maine: to enroll more children in school and sustain them to high school graduation. To a great extent, Mainers succeeded at this laudable mission.

  • In 1900, 58 percent of the state’s 5 to 20-year-olds were enrolled in public schools
  • By 1990, 86 percent were enrolled
  • High school graduation rates rose from 5 percent of eligible youth to 85 percent over this period

But the fact remains that our public system has never educated ALL Maine’s children. Through 1950, non-public academies enrolled approximately 20 percent of Maine high school students. Non-public elementary and secondary schools, many of them religiously-affiliated, proliferated in the 1970s and ’80s. State sanctioned home-schooling came to Maine in the mid-1980s.

By 2000, 8.5 percent of all K-12 students were being educated either in non-public schools or at home.

Yet we continue to expect our public schools to “succeed with all children.” When they don’t, we regard it as failure. Enrollment data, however, reveal that “all Maine children” have never even enrolled in our public schools. Maine’s public school enrollment reached its peak for the 20th century in the 1970s. Then, 89 percent of children aged 5 to 18 were attending public schools and approximately 6 percent of all enrollees (public and private) were in non-public schools.

Before and after that point, smaller percentages of eligible children enrolled in our public schools. More Maine families, that is, chose to send their children to non-public schools or to teach them at home. Their reasons are no doubt varied, but whatever they were, they represented a judgment that the public schooling alternative did not promise to meet the goals they held for their children.

Rather than chide ourselves for failing, we might acknowledge the reality that our public system has a natural “saturation point.” If the 20th century is any indication, around 90 percent of eligible children will attend our public schools at any given time. We can continue to strive for 100 percent, but we’re likely to fall short of that goal and expend a lot of time, money, and angst in the process.

Instead of pouring more resources into squeezing into our schools students for whom our system does not work well, what if we think strategically about the following?

  1. How can Maine educators and districts optimize the success of those students our public schools can best serve? Who are those children? Who are those for whom the “system” isn’t “the best alternative”?
  2. How can we as a state cultivate alternative pathways beyond those our schools can provide that satisfy the legitimate learning needs and goals of students who don’t opt into our system?
  3. How can we invent – and pay for — a system of educational placement that allows for – and even encourages – students, families, and schools to select a more appropriate pathway when it becomes evident that the student’s current one is not working well?

Maine has witnessed a healthy diversification of learning options over the past 25 years: alternative programs within districts, free-standing alternative schools, home-schooling, charter schools, individually-designed programs sanctioned by schools, novel learning experiences at our CTE centers. A major challenge to further diversification is funding: new alternatives inevitably threaten the funding base of established schools.

A fourth component, then, of a new education strategy for Maine must be finding new resources to underwrite the entrepreneurial efforts necessary for diversification – a task that leadership at MDOE is best positioned to take on. Regional collaborative efforts and online learning offer substantial potential in this regard.

Sources: MDOE (; Donaldson, G. From schoolhouse to schooling system: Maine’s public education in the 20th century (Maineauthorspublishing: 2014)


Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 650 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at