Talk centers on teachers, not students

Posted July 01, 2010, at 6:53 p.m.

Libby Mitchell got the endorsement of the teachers’ union last week, and she should have. The union that represents teachers in Maine — the Maine Education Association — recently interviewed four candidates for governor. Since the room was full of teachers, you would have thought that the questions would be about improving education, preparing young people for the future, growing Maine’s economy, rewarding good teachers, stretching our education dollars and so forth. But you would have been wrong.

Throughout four pages and eight long questions, the word “student” appeared twice in just one question, and even then only in asking whether teacher evaluations should be based upon measures of student performance (of course they should, but the teachers’ union says no.) There was not another mention of students or any reference to parents, taxpayers or creating jobs.

Here is what the MEA wanted to talk about: raising taxes, protecting the union’s first-class health plan, easing working conditions, higher teacher salaries (regardless of competence and performance) and a tax exemption for retired teachers.

There was one other question: Would I support or oppose the establishment of charter schools in Maine? I strongly support charter schools, but the teachers’ union has used its clout to block them in Maine. We are just one of a handful of states that don’t allow public charter schools, and it is one of the principal reasons Maine schools have been denied a share of the hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal “Race to the Top” education reform program.

At a time when we need to be focused on growing the economic pie in Maine so that our kids will have a future here, the MEA’s only concern is how to grab for themselves an even bigger slice of a pie that already is much too small.

Without Libby Mitchell at the helm in Augusta for much of the last 30 years, the MEA never could have succeeded in driving the costs of public education in Maine higher and higher, blocking public charter schools, preserving tenure and lock step salary increases for teachers and sidetracking other needed public education reforms — all while student enrollments and performance have been falling.

So take the MEA endorsement of Ms. Mitchell with a grain of salt and a heavy dose of caution. The endorsement was paid for upfront by years of steadfast support from Ms. Mitchell for higher taxes, more spending and opposition to reform. Unfortunately, it is our children who will foot the bill.

I am convinced that the leadership of the teachers’ union does not reflect the views of thousands of dedicated, hardworking Maine teachers. More than anyone, our teachers have been marginalized and their professional status compromised by the failure of their own union leadership.

Teachers should have a prominent role in setting educational policy. But they don’t, because the MEA is more concerned about propping up a political party in decline.

Good teachers should be paid more than mediocre ones, as in other professions, and student achievement should be somehow reflected in compensation. Teachers should help design the system that rewards excellence with compensation and advancement. But the MEA wants to make sure that every teacher, regardless of effectiveness, is treated the same.

Good teachers should be free to innovate, and we should make more clinical and professional training available to help them do that. But the MEA wants to keep every teacher in the same narrow box.

I had hoped to be able to talk with the MEA about important issues like education reform, ensuring that every child — wherever they live in Maine — has access to a quality education, improving student performance and operating our schools more efficiently as enrollments decline.

Instead, the meeting turned out to be one more example of the kind of special interest politics that we simply can’t afford any longer.

So, if you like things the way they are and want to continue paying more and getting less, cast your lot with Libby Mitchell and the MEA. If you want change and reform, I hope that you will join me in creating an education system in Maine that is innovative, affordable and focused on results — a system that truly respects our teachers as professionals and gives every Maine child an equal opportunity to succeed.

Eliot Cutler is an independent candidate for governor.

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