FALMOUTH — Last week, independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler introduced a comprehensive plan for reforming our public schools (

www.cutler2010.com/2010/09/education/

).

At the core of Cutler’s plan is one simple idea: Given the amount of money that Maine taxpayers are putting into the system, we should expect well-educated students prepared to build Maine’s future.

Maine has long been committed to a strong system of public education led by skilled and dedicated educators.

However, our schools now face significant challenges:

• Our student population is decreasing.

• Our education expenditures are rising.

• One-third of our teachers are nearing retirement age.

• Our revenues are not sufficient to meet the state goal of funding 55 percent of education costs.

• Costs to support public education are being shifted to local property taxpayers.

The MEA leadership’s first response to Cutler’s ideas was to exaggerate the facts and distort his proposals.

Mark Gray, MEA’s executive director, in a column Sept. 15 (“Teachers work hard for kids”) wrongly accuses Cutler of proposing to save $400 million through massive teacher layoffs and increasing class sizes by half through consolidation. No such layoffs or consolidations are proposed.

The facts are that Maine has the second-highest (after Vermont) student-teacher ratio in the nation at 11.3 students for every teacher. The average student-teacher ratio in rural states that now perform as well or better than Maine is 13.5.

If Maine moves toward the rural average, as proposed by Cutler, the difference amounts to $150 million in cost savings that could be reinvested each year in education reform.

With one-third of our teachers soon to reach retirement age and student enrollments in decline, very few staff reductions would be needed to move our student-teacher ratio in line with other rural states.

Cutler has also proposed, among other ideas, rewards for improvements in student performance by educators or teams of educators (including pay, professional development and leadership opportunities) based on a variety of measures (not just test scores).

He supports preserving community schools and the passage of legislation that will permit Maine to charter innovative, autonomous and small public schools as alternatives to our regular public schools.

Charter schools can create opportunities for children whose traditional public school experience is not working while keeping standards high.

Gray claims that charter schools are places where “incompetence,” “fraud” and — incredibly — “racism” persist, and that these schools have no “safeguards for students and accountability to taxpayers.”

He also accuses Cutler of diverting state aid so students can attend unregulated private, religious and for-profit schools.

But Cutler has no such proposals and does not support a voucher program.

Charter schools are public schools that serve public school students and must meet the same or higher performance standards as existing public schools. What appears to bother Gray is that charter schools operate free from the constraints of traditional collective bargaining rules and the power of the state union.

Perhaps that explains why many charter schools have fostered dramatic innovations in the quality and delivery of cost-effective education. And perhaps that is why they have been approved in 40 other states, and continue to grow. 

Gray also cites some test scores to prove that Maine is near the top. In fact, using scores from the National Center for Educational Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education (nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/), which are accurate and broadly accepted, Maine is regrettably much closer to the middle than the top.

Gray claims that the MEA has “supported” reform. That’s odd, because as this paper observed in its editorial published on Aug. 29, the MEA single-handedly torpedoed Maine’s application for Race to the Top Funding because it refused to support the reforms necessary for success.

In the end, the most troubling aspect of Gray’s comments on would-be Gov. Cutler’s proposal is his inherent defense of the status quo. But not once did Gray offer any new proposal that would improve education for our children.

It’s time to take a fresh look at education, insist on reform designed around the needs of students, their families and the taxpayers, and get smarter about how we use our resources. The only candidate who has promised to do this is Eliot Cutler.

 

– Special to the Press Herald