It is back-to-school time, and the recent news about Maine’s schools is not encouraging. A Bangor Daily News editorial on Aug. 28 got it right, headlined: “Race to Embarrassment.”

The editorial noted that Maine’s application for President Obama’s Race to the Top funding ranked 33rd out of the 36 states who submitted applications, down there with Mississippi and Alabama.

The Press Herald had an excellent editorial of its own lamenting that New England winners Massachusetts and Rhode Island “will be finalizing plans to spend millions of dollars in federal funds to reform their schools. Maine will go back to the drawing board.”

Race to the Top funding was allocated to the 10 winning states based on the states’ approach to education reform and, in particular, their willingness to innovate in their approaches to improving results.

It is hard to argue with such criteria unless you happen to be from another planet or you are the head of Maine’s teacher’s union, the Maine Education Association. MEA President Chris Galgay dismissed Maine’s dismal showing with the comment: “This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Maine schools. We’re just not jumping through the hoops they want us to jump through.”

As someone who has spent a big part of the last 20 years involved in education reform in Maine, the state of Maine’s school improvement efforts is disturbing.

Twenty years ago Maine was a national leader in school reform efforts. Maine was the first state to formally endorse a set of challenging outcome-based standards – the Maine Learning Results.

Maine students routinely performed in the top five on highly-regarded achievement tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Over the past 20 years, various attempts to implement Maine Learning Results have foundered. At least five different ad-hoc state-wide groups have been convened and asked to provide recommendations.

The recommendations have been duly made and largely left to languish.

In spite of much high-sounding rhetoric about change, little has actually changed.

A combination of ill-considered initiatives from the Department of Education and slowly increasing resistance from the established educational interest groups, mainly the MEA and the Maine Principals Association, has led to the current dismal situation.

The achievement scores of Maine students have shown little improvement over the entire period. Across the country other states’ scores have improved, and many of those states now routinely eclipse Maine student results.

We have gone from being highly regarded to being cast with the also-rans.

If this pattern had happened in Singapore, there would have been a national scandal. If it had happened in China, heads would have rolled, perhaps literally. But it happened in Maine, so what we have are leading education groups refusing to acknowledge that there is even a problem.

This is a sad day indeed for Maine. Our leading education groups have their heads in the sand while Maine students suffer loss of opportunity.

We fail to hear the message from the world to Maine: “Wake up!” The Obama administration has done us a favor by exposing the weaknesses in Maine’s efforts to improve K-12 education.

And what do the “Big Three” of the gubernatorial candidates think of this? We have heard little from either Libby Mitchell or Paul LePage.

However, Mr. LePage has indicated in past statements that he would not welcome federal funding of K-12 education in any case — leaving most decisions, in his words, to local school boards.

As a nine-year school board member, I question Mr. LePage’s all-encompassing confidence in the wisdom of school boards.

In Ms. Mitchell’s case, there is no legislator in Augusta closer to the MEA than Libby. I would hope she is at least embarrassed by Chris Galgay’s comments. More likely, she will find a way to support them.

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler actually responded with a specific program to address the issues raised by Maine’s RTT application.

Cutler called for a longer school day and school year, charter schools, expanded magnet schools and a merit pay system for teachers, among other initiatives.

He also promised to cut in half the number of children not reading proficiently by third grade.

None of what he suggests is new, and he has not been specific about how he would fund the longer day and school year.

Nonetheless, he is the one candidate willing to take these issues head-on. Check him out.

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]