In New York City, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio — the first Democrat to run Gotham in 20 years – has begun his reign by declaring war on charter schools.
This is no galloping shock, of course: He campaigned against them as part of his vow to undo much of what his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had done. De Blasio fulfilled his promise by reneging on a deal to allow three charter schools to use public school space, leaving them homeless.
New York City is far from Maine, but we’ve seen a similar attitude toward charter schools in our largest city. The mayor of Portland, Michael Brennan, has sought to undermine the one charter school operating there at every turn. He opposed its initial establishment, then tried to get it investigated by the attorney general. When that failed, he moved on to a moratorium to ensure that no more charter schools would be established in his city.
Of course, charter schools only exist in this state because Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, sponsored a bill to get them started here during the 125th Legislature. This bill doesn’t get the credit it deserves; it was one of the greatest accomplishments of the Republican majority. Though it received bipartisan support in the House, Mason’s bill was also a partisan football; in the Senate it was a nearly party-line vote.
It didn’t have to be that way. Outside of Maine, charter schools specifically — and education reform generally — aren’t a partisan issue. In New York state, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stood with charter schools. Nationally, one of the first accomplishments of President Obama was implementing serious education reform through his Race To The Top program, passed as part of the stimulus package. Race To The Top awarded grants to the states based on their ability to implement education reform, and Maine failed disastrously.
Across the nation, Republicans and Democrats have come together to implement education reform. While they certainly don’t always agree — on school choice, for example, which Republicans generally support — it often has not been a partisan fight. Many Democrats have been willing to consider reforms with their Republican colleagues.
All too often, this hasn’t been the case in our state. Democrats have fought tooth-and-nail at attempts at education reform here. Gov. John Baldacci’s refusal to push for charter schools was a major reason our Race to the Top application failed. His refusal effectively forced the state to leave tens of millions in federal dollars on the table — something Democrats are now attacking Gov. Paul LePage for on Medicaid expansion.
In addition to being an unwilling partner, Democrats have actually been trying to roll back charter schools this session. They’ve been sponsoring bills to limit charter schools in virtually every possible way short of simply shutting them down.
Much of the opposition of Maine Democrats to education reform boils down to the influence of teachers’ unions. They have consistently opposed any reform here, from charter schools to teacher evaluation systems to merit pay — all ideas supported by Obama. They seem dead-set on maintaining the status quo at any cost, regardless of the educational outcomes.
This issue is a major area of disagreement between Eliot Cutler and the Democratic Party. Though he doesn’t support school choice, he does embrace a plethora of other education reforms that the state teachers’ union would fight tooth and nail, and that would sink him in a Democratic primary. Cutler understands this perfectly well, and has pointed it out repeatedly.
It’s time for Maine to follow the lead of much of the nation and turn education policy into a post-partisan issue. When it comes to foreign policy, it is often said that politics should stop at the waters’ edge. Let’s stop politics at the schoolhouse door as well.
Jim Fossel, an Alna native, has worked for Sen. Susan Collins and Maine House Republican Leader Josh Tardy. He has volunteered on numerous campaigns, including Peter Mills’ 2006 campaign for governor.