Thursday, June 20, 2013
By Jonathan Farley
ORONO - On June 18, the mayor of Portland came out swinging against the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, one of the first schools eligible to receive a charter from the state.
Like John Henry, Mayor Brennan's intentions are good.
But, ultimately, standing in the way of the march of science is an enterprise doomed to fail.
The claim that Baxter will hurt public schools is bunk.
Whatever one thinks of religious schools or charter schools in general, the promotion of math and science is non-partisan and should not become a casualty of ideology unless you support charter schools for ideological reasons, in which case, right on!
Other than the one-time transition costs of moving students to a new place of instruction, how can it hurt the city to shift students to Baxter from the ordinary public schools?
Presumably the school district gets enough money to teach the students it's actually teaching.
If it's getting more, then an accountant needs to be hired or fired.
I concede I could be missing something here.
Like many Americans, I'm not good with numbers.
In the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, America ranked 31st in math out of 65 countries and educational systems.
The fact that more than 55 percent of all math Ph.D.s given out in the United States in 2008 went to foreign nationals points to a great need to increase the numbers of children going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields).
There is also a need to support children with special talents in math and science for the sake of scientific progress itself.
The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science will help ensure that.
Finally, Mayor Brennan charged that Baxter was doing nothing new.
As a member of Baxter's advisory board, I can categorically deny that.
Except for schools in the districts of Superintendent Ronald Ross in New York state, I do not know of any school in the country as willing to take on research mathematicians.
This includes the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.
In February 2010, I spoke in Limestone on the topic, "How to Fall in Love with Mathematics."
A math teacher at the school, who has since been promoted, wrote me afterward and said, "Thanks for the talk when you came up to MSSM.
"You wouldn't believe it, but I had a couple of students come in asking for open problems and one of them was a student who I didn't think was that into math...!"
Yet there was no follow-up.
Besides, Limestone is too far away to help students in most of Maine.
Similarly, my offer to help the new STEM school in Bangor fell on deaf ears.
Mayor Brennan and Baxter should come together to apply for grants that will help all the children of Portland.
A director of advanced mathematics at Baxter could also teach children gratis at Portland's other public schools.
I am currently a math consultant for the Greenburgh Central 7 School District in Hartsdale, New York, but children from neighboring schools are welcome to attend my talks.
Should Baxter enroll 100 students, the mayor and others predict an $800,000 shortfall for Portland's schools.
Perhaps together Brennan and Baxter could offset the shortfall by applying for grants from Raytheon, whose CEO gave $850,000 to Tuskegee University to support African-Americans in science.
Of course, it might help if there were some actual African-Americans involved.
The Department of Homeland Security also has STEM initiatives.
In 2005, the New York State Board of Regents considered my initiative to create a Homeland Security program at a school.
In 2007, a school district in Maryland successfully obtained funding from various homeland security-related entities.
When I was a student, all the superstars in math competitions seemed to come from specialized schools like the Bronx School of Science.
All the math superstars when I was an undergraduate at Harvard seemed to have this advantage as well.
As a defender of unions and public schools, I sympathize with the mayor's position in general.
But the political opposition to charter schools should not get in the way of advancing science and technology in the United States.
The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science could be Mayor Brennan's greatest legacy and Maine's next bright star.
- Special to the Press Herald
Jonathan Farley is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maine.