The LePage Plan to Shrink Public Education in Maine — A Progress Report

The governor’s plan in a nutshell is to shrink (if not eliminate) public education in Maine. The strategy:

(1) Repeatedly denigrate public schools in order to create a negative public opinion of schools. Done.
(2) Concoct a “grading system” that will, by design and regardless of their actual performance, grade a sizable percentage of Maine schools as “D” and “F.” Done.
(3) Support legislation that opens the door to charter schools and online learning corporations. Done.
(4) Starve public schools financially by diverting public funds from public schools to private and virtual schools. (In progress).
(5) Create widespread budget crises in Maine towns by eliminating revenue sharing. (In progress).
(5) Advocate for “school choice” and use #2 above to drive enrollment — and financial support — from certain schools (mostly schools serving our neediest students in economically depressed parts of the state) and toward corporate virtual schools and charter schools. (In progress).

The irony is that if LePage gets his way, “choice” for many Maine families will be diminished rather than enhanced. Many rural schools will shrink or close outright and parents will be faced with transporting their kids to distant schools, enrolling them in an for-profit virtual schools, or moving to another area of the state. Kids from poor families, who already have too few choices, will have fewer choices still.

Bashing Public Education Every Chance They Get

Anyone else becoming weary of the parade of national rankings giving Maine poor grades?

Don’t jump off a bridge yet, however.  The recent “National Council of Teacher Quality” rankings, which awarded Maine a D+ for teacher training, make a useful little case study of the political gamesmanship that is going on.  According to the BDN article on the rankings,  the D+ grade is actually a slight improvement over Maine’s grade last year and places Maine in the middle of the pack nationally.

A little digging shows that Barbara O’Brien, current chair of the National Council of Teacher Quality is an active member of ALEC, the ultra-conservative, corporate-sponsored organization that would like nothing better than to see public education itself dry up and blow away.

While the recommendations of the Council, such as raising the bar for entrance into teacher training programs, are not without merit, the agenda that looms behind the report casts such a huge shadow that it truly renders the report useless.  This is a case in which one would be better off not reading the news at all.

The ALEC strategy (frequently and guilelessly carried out by our governor) seems to involve saying bad things about public schools at every opportunity, in order to create a climate in which charter schools and virtual schools might be seen as more attractive.

The recent Michelle Rhee/Students First ranking is another example of an agenda-driven organization releasing highly negative rankings intended to push states toward adoption of a corporate agenda.

An ironic little sidenote is that our accidental governor, who earnestly intends to be in lockstep with ALEC, not so long ago stated that he wanted to relax standards for teacher certification and allow those with content knowledge but no teaching degree to teach.

LeMan, LeMyths, LePage

Maine Governor Paul LePage has worked hard to spread the myth that we need to shrink Medicaid before the state’s economy can improve.  It is ironic to see New Hampshire (a state often lauded by LePage) moving in the exact opposite direction.  New Hampshire recently commissioned a report that concludes, as stated by Gov. Maggie Hassan,  “ . . . Expanding Medicaid will help the state by injecting federal money, creating jobs and reducing the amount of uncompensated care at hospitals.”

Another myth LePage has been worked hard to create is that the Charter School Commission is not doing its job.  Bill Nemitz explains the very legitimate reasons for the Charter School Commission’s denial of four of the five applications.

A myth that has been central to LePage’s political agenda is that we need to reduce taxes on the wealthy or they will flee the state for lower tax states.  Interesting to read that an extensive study by the Stanford Center on Poverty & Equality in California concludes that the millionaire migration myth is just that — a myth: “The result of all that data crunching? The migration of millionaires in and out of the state has almost no relationship to tax increases or tax cuts.”

LePage Press Conference Shows Lack of Control

One aspect of last week’s press conference — the part in which the governor threw charter commission members under the bus — got all the attention.  However, now that charter members have picked themselves up and dusted themselves off, it’s worth looking back at what else the governor said.

As evidenced below, the press conference (uncommmon in recent months) is a glimpse of a man who has lost control of his message and — we say this in seriousness — may be losing his mind.  Precedent has led us to accept statements such as the below from LePage without too much surprise, but in any other time or place, such statements would be cause for concern

1. LePage stated that Maine’s schools are failing.  Blatant Lie.  LePage made no reference to back up his claim.  By most accounts, including recent test results, Maine schools are above average.  As noted by the Portland Press Herald recent reports have ranked Maine schools in the B and C range.  The recent Michelle Rhee report did score Maine a D, but it is important to note that was not a quality ranking of student achievement Maine schools but rather a ranking based on how well the Maine’s schools structurally met certain criteria such as inclusion of parents and evaluation of teachers.

2. He threatened to reduce funding to Maine schools.  Displaced aggression.  He is angry at the Charter Commission but it is unclear why he is now threatening to hurt Maine students to the tune of $63 million as a retaliatory measure.

3. He states Maine schools are ranked 49th in the nation.  Blatant Lie.  This statement by LePage has absolutely no basis in fact.  There is no published study in which Maine schools rank anywhere near that poorly.

4. He suggested that when Puerto Rico becomes a state, they will beat us in terms of education.  Blatant Lie.  Again, referring to #3 above, there is no factual basis for this statement.  According to one source, 95% of public school students in Puerto Rico graduate at a sub-basic level while 60% do not even graduate.

5.  The governor stated that Maine teachers are underpaid. Irrelevant / inane / off-message.  Another statement that is apropos of nothing.  LePage has proposed no legislation related to this measure.  One who believed the above might logically reach the conclusion that we need stronger teachers unions to reach the goal of higher pay.

6. LePage continued to build that myth that anyone who does not agree with his educational philosophy “does not care about kids.”  Oversimplification.  Obviously there are many many schools of thought in education — and the vast majority of people understand that various other philosophies have value.

Intimidation & Threats — Leadership LePage Style

LePage to charter school commission members: ‘Please go away.’

With headlines like the above, what more can you say?

Paul LePage’s response to the Charter School Commission who refused to rubber stamp charter school applications was to try to intimidate them into leaving their posts.  Ironically, he criticized them as being too easily intimidated.

LePage apparently  has no problem with intimidation, as long as it is being done by him.

This is not the first time he has criticized and attempted to intimidate the Charter School Commission.  He criticized the commission back in June for not acting at a pace that was to his liking, stating in a letter written at that time, ““If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state’s expectations, I urge their resignation.”

Two of the four applications were for virtual charter schools who would have been affiliated with K12 and Connections Learning. two huge online learning corporations with reputations that are controversial at best.

YouTube U. — Just a Sled Run Away

The slope is slippery.  Paul LePage and Steve Bowen are counting on that fact.

18 months ago, Maine Republicans pushed through legislation allowing up to ten charter schools in the state.  Now LePage wants more of them.

” . . . Once you welcome in the Trojan horse of school choice, the idea that each child is entitled to a quality education by certified teachers at an accredited public school becomes harder to justify.”

Undoubtedly, LePage’s unrelenting disparagement of Maine public schools has been for the purpose of laying the groundwork for this initiative.  No matter that Maine public schools have a pretty strong record when compared to those in other states.  No matter that reports on the effectiveness charter schools are mixed at best.  No matter that there is no money (NO MONEY) for creating new schools while continuing to support the existing ones. This at a time in which the state is mired in a budget fiasco that gets worse by the week.

Which brings us to Exhibit A, New Hampshire — a state whose charter school and virtual charter school programs have been around for a while.  As the New Hampshire case shows, once you welcome in the Trojan horse of school choice, the idea that each child is entitled to a quality education by certified teachers in an accredited public school becomes harder to justify.  Somebody else can do it more cheaply — and that is where the students and the money will ultimately go.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, as a recent New York Times article shows, parents are up in arms because students are losing their access to courses taught by real teachers and instead are finding themselves taking online courses offered by the state-approved virtual charter school.

New Hampshire has found the sledding to be slick.  If Paul LePage gets what he wants, YouTube U. as a replacement for public education as we know it will be just a slippery slope away.

LePage Looks to Cross Aisle,
Veers Into Gutter

Maine Schools -- Lots to be proud of.  Lots to improve.If you send your cat into an oven to have her kittens, she’ll give birth to biscuits. Or so Paul LePage would have us believe, based on the convoluted logic he recently used to compare public and private schools. “If you want a good education, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck.” the governor stated at a breakfast meeting last Friday. “Private schools are kicking our butts,” he went on to say.

The governor stated that even in the best of Maine’s public high schools, only 60 percent of students are proficient in English and math, and implied that the proficiency rate is higher in private schools because those private schools are superior.

It is LePage’s logic that is deficient, however. Anyone who knows anything about education knows that family income and education level attained by parents are two of the strongest predictors of a child’s educational success. Comparing the achievement levels of public and private school students is unfair and illogical because these two types of schools are worlds apart in terms of the types of students they enroll.

An Education Week article looked at this disparity on a national basis: “On average, private school students come from families with higher incomes than those of public school families, and have parents who have reached a higher level of education than the average parent. ”

Overall, the evidence does not show that the typical underachieving public school student would make academic gains if sent to a typical private school. An extensive Center for Educational Policy study states that when socioeconomic status is taken to account, private school education offers no advantage over that of public schools. The study concludes: “Once the full scope of the family is taken into account, cultural capital as well as economic capital, private school effects disappear.”

LePage probably knows this stuff — or could easily know this stuff if he wanted to. What he wants to do is to drive a wedge between teachers and the local communities that employ them. He knows that his education proposals will be opposed by teachers, so he is criticizing teachers and public schools — and gambling that the general public will take his side.

During the same Friday breakfast speech, LePage described our political system as “vile” and “full of lies.” He stated that he is willing to work across the aisle. He called Democrats “cruel” for their behavior in recent campaigns but said he can work with “honest” Democrats.

If Democrats are honest, however, they will tell the governor that it is wrong and destructive to paint our public schools with so broad a brush. They will point out that his criticisms of public schools are an insult to the students who attend them — as well as to the teachers, administrators, staff, school board members, and volunteers who have give so much of their time to help our schools succeed. They will tell Paul LePage that his negativity is a huge stumbling block — and it’s hard to see that the conversation will go anywhere good from there.

(Cross posted at )

Talking Trash on Schools: LePage Again Throws Public Education Under Bus

Paul LePage has created an uproar with his recent trash-talk about public schools.  “If you want a good education in Maine, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck.” the governor stated at a breakfast meeting yesterday.

Any way you you look it it, this is a remarkable statement — the educational equivalent of the chief executive at Ford telling people to go buy a Chevy.

A Bangor Daily News article on LePage’s statements has generated a huge response, with the comment section below the article registering more than 500 comments in less than 24 hours.  The governor is clearly seeking to rile people up — and to create division.  One of our posts on the BDN message board is below:

The lies LePage is telling about our schools are not just normal political lies that rile people up and create pressure for political change.  They are something much worse.  Here’s why.  Many of the underachieving students in our schools come from homes in which education is not valued.  And now, thanks to LePage’s campaign of negativity, education may be valued even less.

We now could have thousands more kids who have another “excuse” not to succeed, not to care, not to invest themselves in their education.  After all, according to the governor, attending a public school is a waste of time.

As for the governor’s claim, it is cowflop.  Private school students by and large come from families that are wealthier, better educated, and who value education.  It is illogical to compare those students with “the average Maine kid” in terms of achievement levels.

The Inconvenient Truth of Child Poverty

Child Poverty Rates: Maine’s child poverty rate is slightly lower the national average at 18.2 percent. However, this figure is skewed by poverty rates in southern Maine that are as low as 13 percent. Washington County has the highest rate in Maine at 30 percent.

Why is it that we hear so much about the fact that student test scores in the United States are lagging behind other countries in the industrialized world?

Why is it that we hear so little about the fact that when it comes to child poverty,  the U.S. ranks as worst among similar countries in the industrialized world?

Like the melting of distant glaciers, child poverty is an an inconvenient truth that conservatives would rather avert their eyes from.  Confronting the truth of child poverty, would — after all –  force them to come to terms with the shortcomings of their own political ideals.  Far more convenient — and politically expedient — to hold that the impoverished 8-year old can raise himself on the bootstraps of his own academic achievement.   According to this narrative, any lack of achievement can rather conveniently be blamed on political adversaries such as teachers and teachers unions.

While the correlation between economic status and academic achievement has long been recognized, the convenient new conservative narrative holds that we should make no excuses for kids living in poverty.  With the right teachers and right administrators, the mantra holds, those kids can do as well as their more privileged peers.

However, it is not clear whether that mantra has any basis in fact.  As Valerie Strauss states, “The “no excuses” rhetoric . . . is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools” while avoiding addressing deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. ”

Strauss goes on to explain how many of the measures that are part of the no excuses movement may actually hurt impoverished children rather than helping them:  “Standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, English Language Learners, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work.”

From a competitive testing standpoint, at least, there may not be anything wrong with American schools at all.  As Mel Riddile documents, students at American schools that have low poverty rates actually test out better than their overseas counterparts.

Simply put, as Eugene Robinson argues, family income is a much more important factor in determining academic achievement than the much ballyhooed “teacher effectiveness.”

As stated by Tre’ Maxie in his Seattle TImes Op-Ed, in recent years, the income gap has surpassed the gap between racial groups in terms of limiting academic achievement:  “The achievement gap between low income and non-low income students has surged by more than 40 percent, and is now double the gap between African Americans and whites, according to a recent study by Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon.”

What we know is that poor kids face a whole set of physical, emotional, and mental challenges that are not faced by kids who are better off.   What we know is that the lives of those kids aren’t likely to get any better unless we as a society come together and, somehow, make them better.