March 29, 2013

Our View: Governor declares war on state's public schools

A conference on public education with no input from public educators is a telling sign.

Gov. Paul LePage's education reform conference in Augusta last week made one thing clear: The governor is less interested in improving public schools than in replacing them.

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Gov. LePage’s commitment to reforming Maine’s public schools would be more credible if his education reform conference had included public educators and experts from states with high-performing public school systems.

2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Andy Molloy

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They would still be public in the sense that they would be financed with the public's money, but the education would be delivered outside what most people consider public school systems.

The governor and his handpicked experts call this "putting students first" and say that concerns about organizational structure and governance are problems for adults, not kids. But what they don't say is who gets to decide what's in the students' best interest and who gets to spend the taxpayer dollars.

Instead of publicly elected school boards overseeing superintendents, principals and teachers, a system based on school choice puts public money in the hands of private school administrators, church groups and corporations that run charter schools, none of which is accountable to anyone but itself.

It spoke volumes that none of LePage's presenters was a public educator. And the state that received the most attention at the conference, Florida, is one that has enacted the most radical privatizing reforms.

For the record, Maine is not ranked last in the nation, as the governor often says. The National Center for Education Statistics ranked Maine 11th in reading and 13th in math. The 2012 Quality Counts report card for state education efforts gave Maine a C overall, which was the national average grade, and a B-minus for chances of student success, which was just above average.

That may not be much to cheer about, but it's also not evidence of a rotten public school system that should be scrapped and replaced with vouchers.

If LePage were serious about improving schools, he would have a conference that includes public educators, who have devoted their careers to learning what works in a classroom.

He would bring in experts from states like Maryland and Massachusetts, which regularly rank top in the nation in student performance, and see how they have introduced teacher accountability and charter schools to strengthen a strong public system.

Maine educators have a lot to work with, and reform should focus on making our schools better, not tearing them down.


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