Education is a big deal. It prepares our children, fuels our economy and accounts for more than a third of our state budget — even more for local town budgets. We must take steps to allow our education system to adapt to changing times, and we must ensure that it serves our children above all else.
Over the past few years, we have implemented some landmark reforms to Maine’s education system. We finally made Maine one of the many states that allows charter schools, introduced a teacher evaluation program, linked schools to work by creating the “bridge year” technical degree program, and increased Maine’s financial commitment to our public schools. This is just a sampling of the many important reforms implemented under the LePage administration with mostly bipartisan support in the state Legislature.
Our work is not yet done.
Charter schools cap
While I agree that we should lift the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools in our state, this should be done with the goal being to not damage our public school systems. There are many phenomenal things going on in the few specialized schools in Maine. The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Good Will-Hinckley helps students harness their interest in agriculture and forestry to achieve success.
Baxter Academy in Portland is a marvel of parental involvement and grassroots support for the educational freedom that charter schools offer. Against all odds, Baxter’s supporters are working to create a school that someday might also be a top-ranking institution of learning.
We need more of these nontraditional schools, not fewer. While a cap on the number of charter schools may have been prudent when the law allowing them was first passed two years ago, the charter school commission, which considers charter applications, has proven itself to be a careful and selective overseer of the approval process.
Another proposal before the Legislature is to allow for a limited version of “school choice” — a system whereby low-income students may attend a school other than their government-designated public institution and bring their share of educational funding with them.
The key to school choice is to do it so that a mass exodus of students from a small school does not cripple that school’s ability to continue operations. That is why I would support a limited voucher program, whereby poor students and those with certain special needs would be able to choose a school that better suits their needs and take their public funding with them.
A commonsense part of school choice would be to allow parochial schools to be among those — next to charters and private schools — where poor and disadvantaged students could take their education funding with them. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not require states to discriminate against religious schools.
That decision comes from a 2002 case involving Cleveland, where inner-city public schools were failing, and the city decided to allow students to attend private schools, including religious ones, and take their portion of school funding with them to cover the cost of tuition.
Here in Maine, Catholic schools have historically had a strong presence, offering a superb education for Franco children of all socioeconomic statuses. Again, we must remember that Maine is a rural state where a Cleveland-style school choice system may not be ideal. Done right, a school choice program that does not discriminate against parochial schools could prove to be the lifeline that struggling students need.
Plans for academic achievement
There seems to be a split between the left and the right on how best to improve the academic achievement of students. Those on the left are light on new ideas, focusing instead on simply sending more and more money to our schools. Those of us on the right have been introducing the reforms, like those mentioned above, that sometimes carry bipartisan support and almost always carry parental support. Adequate funding is important, but Maine already funds its schools quite generously compared to other states, and students cannot really succeed until they have flexibility, accountability, innovation and choices.
Education reform shouldn’t be a partisan issue. That is why I would like to see a Blue Ribbon Commission that allows parents, educators, experts and, yes, even the teachers unions, to come together and determine how best to reform our education system.
Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport is the Republican leader in the Maine House of Representatives. His columns appear here monthly.