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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 offers a 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.
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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.