Susan Gendron leaves the Maine Department of Education at a difficult time for the state’s schools. Test scores are declining and enrollments are dropping, yet we have too many schools in too many districts. Paying for them is a constant struggle on the state and local levels.

But the blame doesn’t all fall on Gendron, who has battled parochial interests to address core problems during her time in public service and deserves credit for picking the right battles, even if she didn’t win them all.

The most important school reform measure of her time in office is school district consolidation. The concept behind it was simple: With about 270 school districts, Maine was spending scarce money on administration that could be redirected to classrooms. Combining districts would also provide educational opportunities that would not be available in smaller districts.

The implementation has been anything but simple, however. The school district consolidation law has been under constant attack since its inception and has survived a number of attempts to repeal or weaken it, both in the Legislature and through a citizen-initiated referendum. It has survived, though a series of compromises have made it less effective than it could have been if it had been fully implemented as originally conceived. Gendron led the charge on implementing the law, and while the work is unfinished, she was successful in establishing the principle in the face of stiff opposition.

Gendron has also been a leader in moving the state away from the homegrown and ever-changing Maine Education Assessment, to a regional standards test that should give schools and families results that they can use to track both individual progress and performance of schools and districts. It will also provide more data to compare the performance of Maine students against those in other states. Replacing the 11th grade MEA with the national College Board’s SAT exam not only shows Maine kids’ relative standing, but also gives them a start on the college application process.

Gendron has been up front on other reforms, including the three bills that passed the Legislature this spring that could make Maine eligible for funds under the Race to the Top grant program. When a new governor and education commissioner take over next year, there will be a lot of work to do. But Gendron deserves credit for her contribution during what have been challenging times for Maine and its schools.

 


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