Then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visits Gray-New Gloucester Middle School on June 1, 2012. Gray-New Gloucester has been among the state's leaders in implementing proficiency-based education. Credit: Christopher Cousins

It’s a common refrain among teachers and school leaders when they have something to lament about the state of public education in Maine: If only the state could choose a reform and stick with it, educators wouldn’t feel as if they had whiplash, and they could better focus on ensuring that their students are learning what they need to learn.

But majorities in the Maine Legislature proved all too content this week to prove that sentiment once again. In votes Tuesday night, the House and Senate signed off on legislation — LD 1666 — that would eliminate the requirement that, eventually, all students graduate from high school only once they’ve proven they’ve mastered the necessary academic expectation in most subject areas. The legislation they approved turns that requirement into merely an option — as if we should be content with our schools choosing to do just part of the job.

The Legislature sent the message Tuesday night that it’s OK if some of Maine’s students graduate from high school substantially less proficient in math, English, science and social studies than other students elsewhere in Maine. Lawmakers sent the message that the solution isn’t to keep working when it proves difficult to meet a requirement that should be a high bar, but to give up. And they sent the message to educators that the effort they devoted year after frustrating year to transforming their schools and classrooms so they’re actually holding students to account and ensuring they graduate only once they’ve mastered the Maine Learning Results really wasn’t necessary.

Imagine the eyerolls from teachers and principals as they greet the state’s next major push to overhaul education.

It’s now up to Gov. Paul LePage to decide whether to go along with the Legislature and sign into law a measure that undoes what was a major policy accomplishment for his administration early in the governor’s tenure.

He should veto LD 1666.

If proficiency-based diplomas become optional, they’ll go the way of local assessments, school district consolidation, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — all initiatives into which educators and school officials invested substantial energy before the state abandoned them. And the optional nature would allow inequities in educational opportunity to persist from district to district.

In exchange for a state investment of about $1 billion a year in local education, the state would be sending the message that it’s OK with putting that money toward a public education system that lowers the bar for students in some districts and raises it for others in different ZIP codes.

“[W]ith this bill, we are … making a sudden turn with sharply lowered expectations for equity in learning,” Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said Tuesday night during floor debate on LD 1666.

To be sure, implementing proficiency-based diplomas has become cumbersome, confusing and contentious in many school districts. A major change that’s worthwhile, by its nature, should be challenging and frustrating to some extent. But the implementation has proven more frustrating than it needed to be.

Since lawmakers first passed the proficiency-based diploma requirements and LePage signed it into law in 2012, the LePage administration has gone through about a half dozen different education commissioners. Without consistent and determined leadership, and without adequate on-the-ground support, there’s no way a state’s public education system will make a change as significant as transitioning to proficiency-based diplomas.

“I have heard and agree with widespread criticism of the state’s uneven leadership and support in the most ambitious educational effort of this century,” Hubbell said. “But I would say that the answer to poor leadership is better leadership, not abdication of responsibility.”

Hubbell was one of only seven members of the House to oppose abandoning the proficiency-based diploma requirement.

Perhaps, in a rare moment of thoughtfulness, the governor will veto LD 1666, and double down on pushing for educational equity in his final months in his office — with the Department of Education as an active partner in this mission.

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