As the father of two young children — a first grader and one who will soon enter school — I have become increasingly alarmed by the direction of Maine’s education system over the past two years. The LePage administration and the Republican-controlled Legislature have taken numerous steps to harm and weaken public education in Maine.
Since March 2011 there have been a few instances of effective bipartisan work: a very modest increase in state funding, passage of the anti-bullying statute and incentives for teachers who successfully complete the prestigious National Board Certification process. However, Republicans need to be held accountable for three major negative developments.
The first of these is a growing demoralization within the teaching profession and the public schools. Since March 2011, teachers, school administrators and local boards have been under sustained attack from multiple directions. Some of the attacks erode teachers’ standard of living.
They have suffered serious cuts to the benefits and health insurance of retirees. The Legislature fragmented the Maine Education Benefits Trust health insurance plans, which were designed to reduce rates by allowing school districts to join larger employee pools. Maine teachers’ salaries rank 35th of the 50 states. Relatively modest benefits and retirement provisions were part of the tradeoff they accepted in order to work here, but that bargain was then unilaterally changed by the Republican Legislature.
The professionalism of educators themselves has been attacked. LePage openly ridicules the Maine education system, using terms like “failing,” “dismal” and “stagnant,” and says that Maine students are “looked down upon” by the rest of the country. The objective record does not support these statements. That they come from the governor himself is inexcusable.
The governor is also not above being punitive. One of his proposals would have charged districts for remedial coursework required for their graduates, thereby threatening to impose unpredictable penalties on those districts.
Perhaps most troubling is an erosion of commitment to the public education system as a whole. Republicans seem far more interested in supporting private choices in schooling and even for-profit education than in strengthening the public school system. Fortunately, their proposal to provide state aid to religious schools was defeated and one to establish an unbridled school choice plan failed to pass.
As recent news articles revealed, these and other education proposals advanced by Maine Republicans originated in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national association established to promote conservative corporate and right-wing legislation at the state level.
Charter schools did pass the Legislature, and though the final bill established a maximum of only 10 such schools in the first 10 years of the program, the worries about charter schools continue to run deep. As envisioned, these schools will not be approved or administered by elected officials. Many worry that they will compete for funds with nearby public schools. There is deep concern around the state that precisely those citizens with energy and imagination who are so badly needed to help govern and improve the public system to better serve all our children’s needs will be attracted away to work on charters instead.
Finally, the Legislature’s party-line passage of LD 849, the “mini-TABOR” bill, will severely limit state expenditures in the future. The measure reduces the tax rate for wealthier Mainers. It will make it much harder to achieve current goals established in LD 1 for the state share of education costs and, especially important, increase competition for scarce resources between other social and health services and K-12 education. The cruel irony is that for significant numbers of Maine public school children, access to such services is critical to their ability to succeed in school.
The attacks on educators and schools, growing drive for privatization, deterioration of public governance and prospects of diminished resources for Maine’s schools detailed here are simply unacceptable. To end them, we must end LePage’s unchallenged Republican majority in Augusta.
On Election Day, I’ll be doing my part to retire the incumbents in my district, Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, and Sen. Brian Langley, R- Ellsworth, who have supported these destructive policies. If you care about the future of education in Maine, please join me.
Jeremy Smith is a resident of Gouldsboro.