AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s recent sharp criticism of the state public education systems, based on a national study conducted by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, spurred an equally sharp response from the Maine School Management Association, one of the organizations the governor suggested was to blame.
In a July 19 letter to LePage, MSMA Executive Director Dale Douglass asserted that the governor left out some relevant information from the Harvard report, which analyzed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In an association bulletin also dated July 19, which Douglass provided to the governor along with his letter, MSMA argued that LePage’s “recent criticism of Maine schools leaves out some facts on student achievement … most notably that students here are achieving well above the national average.”
Maine ranks in the top tier on the test the Harvard report cited, according to MSMA. Though Maine has not made big gains in test scores in recent years, the Harvard report notes that status “could be a result, in part, of the state’s early success.”
Among the data from the test MSMA cites are:
• Maine eighth-graders scored higher than most of the nation’s students in science on the test in 2011, with only five states scoring higher than Maine.
• In reading, Maine eighth-graders were in the top 10 among states.
• Eighth-graders were tied for sixth in the nation on writing scores from 2007, the most recent test data available.
• Maine fourth-graders were tied for fifth-place in the most recent science test.
LePage also pointed to the state’s 83.7 percent high school graduation rate in his letter criticizing Maine education results, but MSMA notes that the national average is around 75 percent.
“Given the tone and nature of your comments,” Douglass wrote the governor, “MSMA believed it worthwhile to do factual research concerning Maine’s rankings. We ask that you read and review this material carefully.”
In his letter, Douglass also suggested that LePage aimed his criticism of Maine schools at MSMA, which represents school boards and superintendents; the Maine Education Association, representing teachers; and the Maine Principals Association.
“Clearly you continue to be driven by the four educational associations’ opposition to your charter [school] and choice legislation,” Douglass wrote.
In the bulletin publication, MSMA said, “The bottom line is that charter schools will take away badly needed funding from public schools even though research shows they will not improve student achievement.”
The governor did not back down from his statements on Friday. During a job creation workshop in the morning at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, he briefly addressed what he felt were problems in the educational system.
Unions, the governor told those assembled, “want their dues” and “don’t really care about teachers.” He also said that superintendents were saying that they needed more money in their districts, despite the fact that Maine spends $15,000 per year per student. The national average is $10,000 per year per student, according to LePage.
Then in the text of his upcoming Saturday radio address, released Friday afternoon, the governor reiterated his concern about the Harvard report, saying it “indicates that Maine is next to last in student achievement compared to 40 other states … [which is] why my administration is standing up against the status quo of union bosses, superintendents and principals association.
He also continued to push for school choice: “The status quo is not putting our students or our teachers first and only a commitment to change will improve results. It is critical Maine offers more opportunities in the form of school choice and teacher development and training.”
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, also noted Friday in an email that though Maine is scoring high on the tests — a fact the governor’s press release conceded — “It’s not like Maine’s getting a 97 on a 100 point test. We still have 50 percent of our students not proficient in reading and math in high school. We’re making almost no progress over 20 years. So, we’re near the top of what? A very low hill.”
Other states and countries have made bigger achievement gains than Maine, Connerty-Marin wrote. To match those gains, “We need to steal those best practices, especially by focusing on effective teachers, rigorous standards and more choices for students and families.”
Douglass, in his letter to LePage, reminded the governor that MSMA worked with the administration on legislation “dealing with the teacher probationary period, teacher and principal evaluations.” He also credited Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen for putting together “some very effective work groups to deal with issues that will help improve student achievement.”
Douglass suggested the governor sit down and meet with the associations he criticized.
BDN writer Jen Lynds contributed to this report.