AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage’s personal story of growing up on the streets and battling his way up the ladder to a managerial position with Marden’s is well known. Unfortunately, the skills that helped him survive poverty and abuse are not serving Maine well.
His fans say he is a straight-talker. Others say he uses rough language, and his detractors call him a bully. Since the Maine Education Association is frequently on the receiving end of his verbal abuse, we find him closer to the latter than the former.
It is clear from his public record that he frequently attempts to intimidate those who do not agree with him; he dislikes both public and private unions; he is not a big supporter of public education; and he berates the MEA on a regular basis.
The governor generally demands agreement and obedience. If you disagree with him, you can expect a public attack like the one he launched on May 25 berating the MEA for not funding staff training for Maine’s teachers — a total fallacy, by the way.
His letter, issued to the press as we were receiving it by email, is little more than a political stunt replete with misstatements and hyperbole.
LePage’s letter claims that the single most important factor in student learning is an effective teacher. Actually, while an effective teacher is the most important in-school factor, common sense and research show the single most important factor in a student’s academic growth is the family, and the highest indicator of student success is a child’s socio-economic background.
For public education to succeed and fulfill all of society’s expectations, we need parents, school boards, administrators, educators and political leaders, like the governor, to work together and do their part.
The governor’s letter proclaims a guiding principle of doing “what is best for the student.” Yet his budget made harmful cuts in the highly effective Head Start program that provides underprivileged children with an important foundation for learning. He also vetoed a bill promoting best teaching practices through certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
The letter further claims an interest in enhancing the prestige of Maine teachers by raising their status to that enjoyed in Finland and Singapore. Yet, teachers in those countries are well-paid, well-respected professionals who are empowered to be educational leaders — something the governor opposes.
Both Finland and Singapore have long traditions of strong teacher unions that give educators a voice. Yet the governor has repeatedly attacked the MEA for being the voice of educators and sharing our views on what matters most to our members: meeting the needs of the students in their classrooms.
Maine’s public schools are ranked 15th in the nation by Education Week. Yet the governor criticizes our efforts and seeks to weaken and defund public schools with voucher programs that spend taxpayer dollars on unregulated, private, religious or for-profit schools.
Maine’s teachers rank in the bottom 20 percent for salaries in the nation. Yet the governor engineered a rip-off of $100 million from their retirement plans and froze the COLA for retirees in order to give Maine’s richest families a tax break.
To add insult to injury, the governor supported a raid on the educator-administered health insurance program that will increase costs and decrease benefits for employees and taxpayers if implemented.
As a result, Maine’s educators suffer from poor teaching-learning conditions, low pay and a now weakened retirement plan.
Now he has the chutzpah to ask teachers to use their own money to pay for staff training? How does any of his budget cuts, punitive words and demoralizing demands improve teacher effectiveness or move Maine toward the models used in Finland or Singapore?
Maine would be better served if the governor took a positive leadership role in working with all the stakeholders in public education. Being critical and assigning fault to others serves no one well.
By working collaboratively with educators, parents and school board members the governor could find better ways to improve our schools.
We have had tough, rough-talking students like Paul Le-Page in our classrooms before, so we have not given up hope for a dialogue.
Our door is open, and we are still willing to sit down and talk about improving teacher effectiveness and moving toward the Finland-Singapore model in which excellence is recognized and good work rewarded.
Chris Galgay is president of the Maine Education Association.