To the Editor:
A well-known Maine politician let loose with one of his famous broadsides the other day. Blasting the Maine Democratic Party as the tool of special interests, singling out the Maine Education Association (MEA) as one of the principal villains. He said that all the MEA wants to talk about is raising taxes, protecting the union’s first-class health plan, easing working conditions, paying higher teacher salaries (regardless of competence and performance) and creating a tax exemption for retired teachers. He claims they show no interest in students.
He pointed out that Maine is one of the few states that don’t allow charter schools, and he blamed the MEA and the Democrats for preventing Maine from competing for a share of the hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal “Race to the Top” education reform program.
Summing it up, he charged the MEA with helping to “drive the costs of public education in Maine higher and higher, blocking public charter schools, preserving tenure and lock step salary increases for teachers and sidetracking other needed public education reforms—all while student enrollments and performance have been falling.”
Who let loose this inflammatory broadside? Our governor? No, it was Eliot Cutler. Back when he was running for governor, Cutler said all these things about the MEA in a Bangor Daily News guest column in July 2010.
There are two points to be made. First, if Governor Paul LePage had said these things the daily newspapers—all of which endorsed Cutler—would most certainly criticize him for using brutal partisan rhetoric, for loathing the little children and for being anti-education.
Second, Cutler and LePage have made almost identical criticisms of the State of Maine’s public education.
They share some of the solutions as well. Both favor more rigorous standards, both wish to promote charter schools and both favor some means of promoting professional competence while ridding the system of incompetence. These reforms aim at improving public education. Indeed, the governor’s initial budget proposal includes a $63 million increase in educational spending.
However, there are some major divisions between the Cutler and LePage ideas. The governor aims to improve and expand technical and vocational education. This ties in with a plan to open community college courses to students in high school, with the objective of allowing those with the talent and willingness to work to obtain two-year college degrees after a full year of enrollment in a community college.
Such degrees would give students a quick lift-off for a job in a technical field or for transfer to four-year schools. For transfer students, this means a considerable savings in college tuition and, more importantly, in time.
This kind of program has already been tried in some states, notably North Carolina. My own experience with high school students enrolled in my community college courses was that their performance was above average. As you might expect, students choosing this option are naturally more motivated.
I believe that it gives them a feeling that they are progressing towards a goal with tangible results, as opposed to a high school diploma, which may primarily represent an escape from 12 years of routine.
A more important difference is in Paul LePage’s willingness to promote alternatives to public education, such as private schooling, school choice and home-schooling. One of his assumptions is that competition will exert pressure on public education for improvement. Another is that parents, who have the ultimate responsibility, should be allowed wider choices in determining the course of their children’s education.
Cutler and the educational establishment agree on a program of extending public education by creating more “early education” programs. Eliot Cutler believes that the solution to the failures of public education is to extend public education to the edge of the crib. A life-long Democrat, he can’t conceive of the government relinquishing control in any sphere where it already has a grip.
Prof. John Frary
Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org