The pandemic forced teachers from improvisational artists to innovators. It magnified the fact that students learn differently and that accommodating this reality is hard work, requiring professional discretion. A year of home schooling earned teachers the respect they deserve from parents. It is time for legislators to do the same.

In carefully organized party-line efforts, the current legislative session is passing laws that appear to view teachers less as innovators and more as compliance managers in a centralized command-and-control system. Instead of providing front-line educators incentives to adopt shared learning and creating new opportunities for learning options for students, Maine’s education policy is driven by a cohort of elected officials and some state Education Department bureaucrats who maintain that a one-size-fits-all district model is the only option moving forward. There is no tolerance for deviation from the system we have now. There are many opinions but little learning. Under this education orthodoxy, public charter schools, magnet schools or even cost-sharing arrangements among town academies are viewed as heretical. Ignoring the positive contributions these schools, and the emerging science on instruction and assessment, advocates for district-managed schooling make efforts to purge alternatives.

This partisan politics is dysfunctional, and thwarts desperately needed systemic restructuring. The academic K-12 achievement outcomes speak to that need. Without a meaningful restructuring policy emanating from the Department of Education, the Legislature has free rein. In fairness, the committees are overwhelmed with bills which makes it almost impossible for serious well-considered education policymaking to take place. Obvious from the questions asked is that few have time to keep up with current literature from the likes of KnowledgeWorks, The Center for Reinventing Public Education or thinkers like Ted Dintersmith or the late Sir Kenneth Robinson. Fewer have time to visit schools or engage in meaningful discussions with teachers and principals. Without that, few can realistically make independent conclusions and thus rely on the party to inform decisions – usually in the form of back-room caucuses. Not holding the line merits reprimands from party chiefs.

Notably absent in the discussions are youth voices. National efforts by students, such as 100 Conversations about School and YouthTruth, are using sophisticated data analytics to incorporate youth feedback into district plans. Maine should be doing more of this.

In the absence of a high-functioning, reflective body of citizens from education, business, nonprofits, philanthropy and students, the dominant party in Augusta and its interest groups are determining Maine’s educational restructuring. Watch the videos on the Legislature’s website to see that governance by grievance is the operative norm. Public hearings are window dressing. Despite a year of learning from the pandemic, openings for true innovative opportunities are casualties in an effort to steamroll party orthodoxy or payback for decisions made by the previous administration. Existing options, such as public  charter schools, public magnet schools and even the esteemed town academies are threatened with elimination or serious financial catastrophes. Watch for key words like “equity” to sell the one-size-fit-all model, rather than discussions of how to implement student-centered learning strategies.

Reflective and thoughtful educators around the country are joining in the need to do a better job listening to local communities about their visions and hopes for a renewed and restructured education system. We all need to respond better to the new economic disruption taking place around us. The current system is failing too many of Maine’s children. We can and should do better. During the past months, we relied on our teachers to come up with new and better ways to educate their students. They met the challenge, and we must hold legislators to the same standards. Too much is at stake to let public education continue to be a tool for political posturing and catering to an outdated educational model.

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