Two weeks ago, I wrote a column (“LePage’s school grading system meant to punish poor towns,” April 27) predicting that the A-F school grades soon to be released by the LePage administration would mostly just show that students in schools in poor towns do worse, on average, on standardized tests than do students in wealthy towns.
Last week, I was proven right. Gov. LePage’s grades correlated with the percentage of children in the school receiving free or subsidized school lunches (a proxy for poverty) nearly perfectly.
Emily Shaw, a professor at Thomas College who did one such analysis, wrote that “for high schools, poverty levels were very, very determinative of outcome.”
Fortunately, the fact that the grades were based on so narrow and biased a measure was understood quickly, was a part of the response from school officials and was mentioned in most media coverage of the grades.
Unfortunately, other problems with the grading scheme slipped through the cracks.
One of the biggest was the fact that the results were curved arbitrarily. In short, the LePage administration decided ahead of time how many A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s it wanted and fit the schools into those categories. This provides a biased view of the results and distorts how schools may actually be doing, even on the narrow measures on which they were assessed.
In other words, even if Maine schools were all the absolute best in the country, the rankings would have shown the exact same number as “failing.”
A lack of understanding of this mechanism led to some confusion and even to a hilarious headline in the Bangor Daily News: “Three-quarters of Maine schools below average.”
An even more important problem with the rankings, however — and one that hasn’t received nearly enough attention — is the political and corporate agenda behind them.
Thanks to a LePage administration memo obtained by education policy expert and state Rep. Brian Hubbell, which he published on his blog, we now know more about this agenda. The memo was written to LePage from Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and discusses their plans for “school accountability.”
“The biggest step by far would be to authorize some kind of takeover of a school by the state,” writes Bowen. “A step that is not quite as dramatic as a state takeover would be to allow students in failing schools to have school choice. We could try to add that in, but again, I don’t know if we have the votes.”
“School choice” is their term for allowing more public money to follow students to private schools.
Bowen concludes: “So the real question is, how hard do you want to push on this? Let me know. Accountability is a good issue politically, I think.”
First of all, this talk of votes and it being a good political issue gives lie to what both Bowen and LePage stated (and tweeted) as they released the school grades that “A-F grading is not a partisan issue.”
Second, this shows exactly why the system was designed to be so simplistic and to make sure that a certain number of schools would be designated as failing. They wanted an excuse to pass legislation allowing them to take over schools, bring in more private and charter schools, and divert public funds to for-profit education companies.
As for why this is part of their agenda, look no further than the great series of articles in this newspaper written by Colin Woodard detailing the web of money and influence behind LePage’s education agenda.
As Woodard revealed, for-profit education companies are spending heavily to lobby in Augusta for privatizing portions of Maine’s education infrastructure. They’re also working through lobbying and advocacy organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council to influence and even write word for word large parts of the governor’s education policies.
The influence of these private companies began even before the governor was elected. K12 Inc., a Virginia-based virtual school corporation that is hoping to profit from siphoning off Maine’s public education dollars, gave $19,000 through a political action committee in 2010 to support LePage’s election.
There are big problems with LePage’s school ranking system. It doesn’t measure enough factors, it doesn’t control for income, it assigns grades on an arbitrary curve and it does nothing to show how well teachers and school administrators are actually doing their jobs.
You might think that these problems mean that the system doesn’t work, but by looking deeper we can see that it’s working exactly as it was designed: to denigrate public schools and serve a corporate and political agenda.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @miketipping