May 9, 2013

2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Joe Phelan

Gov. LePage gives his State of the State address Feb. 5, when he unveiled his proposal to set up an A-to-F grading system for Maine’s public schools. LePage and his education commissioner have wasted more than two years advocating for proposals benefiting relatively few students while ignoring the needs of many more Maine schoolchildren.

Our View: LePage's education policy earns him an F

The report card on Gov. LePage's education policy is in, and he should be ashamed.

The list of A-F grades the administration released Wednesday, after more than two years in office, showed that schools in wealthy communities that need little help from the state are continuing to thrive, but districts where poverty exists are falling behind. As predicted, the school grades tracked nearly perfectly with each community's level of poverty.

That is a failing mark for the governor.

LePage and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, have wasted the last two years in politically divisive battles over creating alternatives to traditional public schools for a few Maine students, while ignoring the real needs of many more.

Now he should look at these grades and admit that the problem is not obstinate teachers unions, uncooperative superintendents or local school boards that won't buy in to his plan. Developing 10 charter schools in 10 years, a reform that LePage got through the Legislature, or providing taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools, which he did not, will not fix what these letter grades expose.

They show the relative income of parents, not which schools are doing a good job. If LePage wants to improve his report card, he should look at the advantages people with means enjoy and extend them to families that need help from the state.

In Maine, about 20 percent of children live in poverty (an annual income of less than $19,530 for a family of three). Another 30 percent come from families earning less than twice that.

One in five Maine children come from households with food insecurity. Missing meals and making do with cheap, processed snack products do not get children ready to learn. Bad nutrition at an early age can cause permanent developmental delays. The governor's report card will not improve until every child in the state can depend on regular, nutritious meals.

Waiting until kindergarten is waiting too long. At age 5 or 6, children who have been parked in front of a television won't know as many words or be ready to sit still, work collaboratively or learn alongside children who have been read to and have engaged in enriching educational play. A child who falls behind at the beginning of his education may never catch up.

LePage's report card will not have a passing grade unless he reverses his cuts to the Head Start program and expands early childhood education for all students who need it. Family literacy and parent training home visits should also be available.

Children don't learn just in a classroom. That's why people who can afford it provide opportunities for their kids to participate in sports leagues and after-school programs as well as tutoring when they get behind. This contributes to the high grades for schools in wealthier communities. Giving low-income families the same after-school options would help those students, too.

At least LePage and Bowen have identified the problem: It's the growing income divide in Maine. Now they have their work cut out for them. Unless the administration gets serious about attacking both the causes and effects of poverty, these grades should not be expected to improve.

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