Though jobs and the economy are doubtless weighing heavily on the minds of Maine voters this election season, transforming the state’s schools has emerged as a major issue in the race to become Maine’s next governor.
It was independent candidate Eliot Cutler who, in a July column for the Bangor Daily News, fired the first shot in what has become a major battle over education reform. Cutler’s column was a blistering broadside against Democrat Libby Mitchell and her backers in the state’s teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association.
“Without Libby Mitchell at the helm in Augusta for much of the last 30 years,” Cutler wrote, “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.”
Cutler has backed up his tough talk with a thoughtful school reform plan, one that involves charter and magnet schools, increased levels of school and district accountability, an embrace of technology, and a renewed focus on making schools the center of their communities.
Mitchell shot back at Cutler with a column of her own in which she lauded her record of school reform. Mitchell credited herself, for instance, with having “set up a system where teacher and principal evaluations are coupled with student performance.” She neglected to mention, however, that under the legislation she championed, the only such performance evaluation systems that can actually be implemented in Maine schools are those that have been approved by the MEA.
Mitchell also credited herself with helping to “create innovative schools,” which, as even a cursory look at the enabling legislation reveals, are “innovative” in name only. Such schools are to be run exclusively by existing public school districts and must comply with every regulation and mandate that burdens Maine’s schools today.
Mitchell closed her piece by praising the work of two Maine teachers, both of whom turned out to be high-ranking officials with the MEA.
Republican Paul LePage had been something of a bystander in the school reform battle, though the combined forces of the Mitchell campaign and the MEA have recently begun turning their guns on him.
In a recent Bangor Daily News column, for instance, Joyce Blakney, identified only as “a teacher in Waterville,” came after LePage on the issue of school spending. Her byline neglected to mention, however, that she is not only the president of the Waterville Teachers Association and the treasurer of the MEA itself, but is also the treasurer of Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, the MEA-controlled Political Action Committee which bankrolled a blatantly disingenuous anti-LePage attack ad.
Through all the smoke and the fire of the school reform battle, though, it is Paul LePage who has put forward the gubernatorial race’s most intriguing education policy idea — providing high schoolers with college-level courses so they can graduate from high school in five years with a diploma and an associate’s degree or two years of transferable college credit.
Sound far-fetched? Today, there are more than 200 early college high schools in 24 states serving more than 20,000 students. In North Carolina alone, there are 69 such high schools offering high school students college-level courses developed in cooperation with that state’s university and community college systems. Course credits are fully transferable, allowing students to seamlessly move from high school to higher education.
North Carolina is also providing high schoolers with access to college courses online, so that even those students in the more rural parts of that state can be a part of this innovative new approach to learning.
Best of all, access to these college-level courses is free to parents and families. The program is paid for through a combination of funding sources from both the high school and college levels.
LePage’s education plan includes other significant reforms, including expanded access to alternatives such as charter schools, enhancing the role of local school committees, and bringing an end to top-down mandates from Augusta.
It is LePage’s early college high school idea, though, that has the potential to utterly transform schooling in Maine. The politicians in Augusta have talked for decades about expanding access to higher education and now, at last, there is a plan to actually do it.