February 21, 2020
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Grading LePage’s policies on ‘putting kids first’

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage (center) shares a laugh with Cony High School senior Michelle Zhang at the beginning of LePage's "Putting Students First" education summit in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013. Speaking at the podium is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

Gov. Paul LePage justified ranking Maine schools’ performance with letter grades by asserting that, “We need to put our kids first … The only way that we can assure that happens is to look at ourselves and be critical of that performance if we’re not top-notch.”

We believe it’s fair to apply that standard to LePage. Have the policies the governor has advanced and the decisions he’s made since taking office in January 2011 put Maine kids first? LePage is amassing a record that indicates otherwise.

Funding certainly isn’t the only measure of support for education, but the governor’s December 2012 curtailment of $12.58 million in state aid to public schools to fill a revenue shortfall in the current budget reduced revenues to districts halfway through their fiscal year. That type of quick change erodes the ability of educators to provide the level of consistency needed to help struggling students improve.

Using the lower post-curtailment figure for overall state aid to public schools as the starting point for General Purpose Aid in the next biennium, then proposing to shift money from it for teacher retirement programs, reverses the progress LePage made early during his governorship to make more state money available for local decisions on how to make proficiency-based learning work for all students. The governor’s proposal to suspend municipal revenue sharing for the biennium also elevates competition for property tax revenues between schools and other municipal services.

LePage needs to explain better how those budgetary positions, even if taken reluctantly, will help students at schools that scored D’s and F’s.

In areas outside the realm of public education, the governor has made policy decisions that make it more difficult for Maine schools to fulfill his goal of putting kids first. One of the more damaging is last year ’s $2 million cut in state funding for Head Start programs and $1.9 million for child-care subsidies for families on public assistance. Federal funding reductions forced by sequestration this year have magnified the impact of those reductions.

Studies have shown that investments in early childhood pay bigger dividends than spending later in children’s educations. Research also shows that children who come from poor families without support systems like those of more affluent students don’t improve at the same rate as those with more resources. Many children who start school at a disadvantage because of their socio-economic conditions find it harder to catch up, which makes it more difficult and costly for educators to meet their needs.

Even if one were to accept test scores as a valid measure of educational success and a basis for reform, “you will hit a test score ceiling until you include students’ emotional and social lives in your school ‘makeover,’” Eric Jensen, a childhood development researcher and founder of the Learning Brain EXPO, writes in “Teaching With Poverty in Mind.”

Similarly, LePage’s assault on general assistance, which provides emergency aid to families in crisis, contradicts his commitment to put kids first. A report by the working group on general assistance shows that 85 percent of the program’s funding pays housing-related expenses. By helping families avoid eviction, escape abusive situations or otherwise avoid trauma, general assistance reduces the risk of adverse childhood experiences that inhibit cognitive development. The program also can be a tool to provide children with stability at home that helps them be more receptive students in school.

Describing what educators must do to help students overcome economic disadvantages, Jensen writes that “quality assessment is essential, but follow-through is even more important.” For LePage, that means stepping back from the welfare-bashing ideology that’s driven much of his agenda to acknowledge that putting kids first requires adequate public investment in early childhood and emergency relief programs that mitigate the negative impact of poverty on learning.

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