AUBURN, Maine — Bill Beardsley, Gov. Paul LePage’s point man on education reform, said Wednesday that his goal over the next couple of years is to finally make progress on issues that have baffled and defeated policymakers for decades.
Beardsley said during a lunchtime lecture hosted by the Maine Heritage Policy Center that his priority is equalizing opportunities for students throughout Maine by standardizing school funding between schools in affluent southern and coastal Maine and cash-strapped towns in the north and west.
As Maine’s education system exists today, some students are at a significant disadvantage because of where they live, he said.
“The academic achievement of the three wealthiest communities in southern Maine is significantly above the three poorest counties,” said Beardsley, who is LePage’s deputy commissioner in the Maine Department of Education. “Somehow we have got to break that achievement and income gap.”
Beardsley’s remarks to a crowd of about 23 people Wednesday came as he is chairing a blue ribbon commission called for by LePage and the Legislature that is tasked with improving Maine’s funding formula and ensuring student and school achievement better matches the state’s investment in public education.
The former Husson University president and Maine Board of Education member is essentially acting as Maine’s education commissioner, although LePage withdrew his nomination to that position after a spat with legislators. Instead of having Beardsley go through the legislative confirmation process — in which Democrats were likely to grill Beardsley on past statements about transgender students and creationism — LePage has given him a different title but said Beardsley will lead the department through the end of the governor’s second term.
Beardsley offered no specifics about any initiatives he or LePage will pursue in their effort to inject life into what the governor has described as a stagnant or faltering public education system. However, he repeated LePage’s frequent assertion that education reform will be a focus of the governor’s final two years in office. He did suggest that he and LePage are interested in freeing teachers and schools from federal and state regulations so they can devote more time and effort focused on students.
“The rebellion against the one-size, nationally driven compulsory education did not start with the tea party or this administration or [the Maine Heritage Policy Center], but rather with Thomas Jefferson,” said Beardsley, who sprinkled literary and historical references throughout his remarks. “Teachers’ facetime with kids seems to be declining as red tape seems to be rising. This has the potential of moving away from encouraging a child’s uniqueness and potential.”
Beardsley and the blue ribbon commission, which is authorized for six meetings during the next few months, have a considerable challenge on their plate. Maine’s school funding formula and the rich/poor, north/south, coastal/inland divides have been debated for decades.
Past legislatures and administrations have made numerous adjustments to funding formulas, organizational structures and measurement tools, but the end result of those changes has been a decline in the overall performance of Maine’s K-12 public education system and a widening disparity between services available to affluent and low-income students, according to Beardsley and LePage.
In 2012, the Legislature commissioned a wide-ranging, $450,000 study by Lawrence O. Picus and Associates. That study suggested that Maine’s school funding formula could be among the best in the nation if it were fully funded in both straight subsidies to schools and funding for special education. The study recommended that Maine ramp up school spending by at least $250 million a year, which in terms of the political and budgetary climates in Maine in recent years has been impossible.
However, a referendum on the November 2016 ballot has the potential to provide some of that funding, though opponents’ efforts to defeat it, including LePage’s, will be fierce. The Stand Up for Students referendum would impose a 3 percent surcharge on income in Maine that is above $200,000 per year. That initiative would generate in the neighborhood of $157 million a year, if successful.
Beardsley said he is committed to working with lawmakers, education professionals and even the state teachers union — which LePage lobs heavy criticisms toward on a regular basis.
“There are wonderful people that are working on these things,” he said.
Beardsley was asked by two audience members why he allowed and participated in Monday’s meeting of the education blue ribbon commission, which was illegally held in an invite-only meeting at the Blaine House.
Beardsley said he understood from the governor’s office that the meeting was informal and legally held.
“I can assure you that all the meetings in the future will be public and will have formal agendas,” he said. “No damage is done, and I’d like to move ahead.”
Beardsley has referred to the blue ribbon commission’s goal as finding a “grand bargain.”
“I just want to make sure the answers are there so decision makers can find a few sweet spots and one or two big bargains that will change the bar,” said Beardsley. “The biggest bar is some kids aren’t getting as good an education and all of our students are below proficiency at every grade level. … We have a moral obligation to help the kids most in need.”