BOOTHBAY — The foundation for the public schools in Maine was built 189 years ago with the following words: “A general diffusion of the advantages of education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people; to promote this important object, the Legislature are authorized, and it shall be their duty to require, the several towns to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools.”

Over the next several decades here in Maine and across the nation, compulsory attendance laws strengthened the idea of public education, so that these benefits would not be denied to any individual.

Additional laws requiring that public schools should be supported by taxes buttressed the constitutional mandate. These ideals of social equality, community good and the requirement of community support have come to define the social role of our system of public education.

They are now directly under attack by a well-funded movement generally known as “school choice.” It sounds good but is built on a myth of public school failure, and disregards the civic role of the school envisioned by our Maine forebears.

According to school choice advocates, we no longer have “public” schools, we have “government” schools. In the December issue of the School Choice Advocate, for example, the public schools are said to be a “monopoly” that “produces welfare recipients and criminals,” controlled by the teachers’ unions.

I recognize that public schools have problem areas that need to be fixed. It perhaps is obvious in an enterprise that has grown so large as the public school movement in America, that there should be some problem areas.

On any school morning, one-sixth of our entire population º something like 50 million young Americans – are in their schools. The problem areas exist primarily in large cities, and in schools that serve low-income populations.

The public schools of Maine are not failing, but they could be doing better. For example, in 2009, about a quarter of Maine eighth-grade students were “proficient” in math. But the same number were below basic levels, while half achieved basic abilities.

Furthermore, the data show that poorer students do less well on all these measures, a situation that must be addressed.

Are charter schools the answer? The research group Mathematica, in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, “found that the average charter school in our sample did not have positive impacts on students’ math or reading achievement.”

We should look at other alternatives, such as the Success for All Foundation. From them we learn that “The Success for All Foundation is committed to working with schools and administrations, not at cross-purposes, and to providing services that help them meet their goals of a quality education for all students.” Students in these schools achieved at significantly higher levels than similar students in control schools.

Why not look at their proposals for school reform?

In addition, Maine has just enacted an innovative school law that allows the formation of schools with many of the characteristics sought by charter school advocates.

The most striking difference between the charter schools envisioned in the proposed Maine law and public schools is that the charter school would be autonomous, able to make its own decisions about staffing and curriculum. This will lead to a splintering of the educational experiences.

Private corporations could, and probably would, be used to staff the schools, and only half the teaching staff would have to be certified.

This could well lead to profiteering at the expense of educational goals.

In essence, the proposed charter schools have given up on our teachers. And they have given up on the idea that all Mainers should be educated in a common way that builds community, a common experience that would bind us all more closely together as citizens.

The solution for our school problems lies squarely in two or three areas.

First, bring up the income levels and educational levels of all Mainers. Invest in education for the future, and demand fair wages and pay for work.

Put in place programs that encourage a longer stay in the schools, including education for a bachelor’s degree and beyond.

Pay our teachers more and support them better in the work they do. Where problem areas are uncovered, get active in pursuing better responses from the schools.

Certainly we need to criticize when necessary, and to become involved in developing solutions, but we need to stay the course with our public schools for the good of all of us, as individuals, and as a society. 

– Special to the Telegram