AUGUSTA – I have witnessed guilt by association before, but have never been the object of it until last Sunday’s breathless expose by Colin Woodard on my efforts to develop a set of policies to guide the future of digital learning options for students (“The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine,” Sept. 2).
This was followed by an editorial a few days later claiming that we have “outsourced Maine’s digital education policy development” (Our View, “State has outsourced policy on virtual schools,” Sept. 5).
Mr. Woodard made the evidently shocking discovery that sometimes state policymakers, such as state legislators, for instance, seek the assistance of outside experts when developing policy and legislation.
In this case, I did indeed ask the Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, for help with developing aspects of our digital learning plan for the state. In particular, we carefully reviewed work that Bush and former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia did in creating Digital Learning Now!, a comprehensive and thoughtful roadmap for crafting state policies that support digital learning.
This was hardly a secret, by the way; I announced the work we were doing with Gov. Bush at a July press conference that Mr. Woodard evidently missed.
Among the apparently dangerous ideas of this bipartisan group of education leaders are:
• All students should have access to distance learning opportunities (such as a Japanese language course or Advanced Placement course, when their own school doesn’t have one).
• We should establish guidelines to make sure that providers are qualified and have qualified teachers.
• Online courses taught to Maine students should be aligned to Maine’s learning standards.
The Maine Sunday Telegram may believe that because these principles were developed in part by a former Republican governor, they should not make their way into Maine’s policies on digital learning, but I don’t share that narrow-minded view.
Nor do I have the power to craft a digital learning policy for the state, or any policy, for that matter, on my own. As with the development of state policy on any topic, there is an exhaustive public process to be followed, whereby public officials put forward ideas (from whatever source), those ideas are given a fully public discussion and debate before a legislative body, and a public vote is ultimately taken by elected representatives of the people.
The development of public policy is, in other words, a public process, as the Maine Sunday Telegram well knows.
As for the development of policy on digital learning, Mr. Woodard would have readers believe that we essentially met unnamed, nefarious forces in an empty parking garage someplace and were handed a special interest-developed digital learning policy under cover of darkness.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What we have done is form, at the direction of the Legislature and the governor, a working group to review the good thinking that has been done on digital learning, both here in Maine and outside our borders, and develop a thoughtful set of policies for consideration by the Legislature.
A thoughtful set of policies on digital learning is what Maine needs. Ten years after leading the nation with a laptop program, we still have not developed a vision for how students can truly benefit from digital learning, even though Maine is a rural state that would benefit more than many from clear policies in this area.
Schools all across Maine are already doing great work with digital learning, and we need a set of policies that expands these best practices and provides needed training and support on digital learning to Maine’s educators.
None of this matters to the Maine Sunday Telegram, however, as both Woodard’s article and the editorial that followed it focused on everything but what is best for students. By spilling all of its ink on who wrote the language of the guiding principles of digital learning that we reviewed, the paper neglected a real, and far more consequential discussion of those principles and how they would affect students.
Is the problem with the ideas themselves? Or simply with who came up with them? I would welcome a healthy discussion of the 10 elements proposed in Digital Learning Now!, which is why a work group is in place as we speak to do just that.
Good ideas are good ideas, no matter who comes up with them or why. Let’s stop debating the value of ideas based who they came from, and instead focus our time and effort on whether they are the best ideas for helping students succeed in school and in life. That is what really matters.
Stephen Bowen is commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.