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M.D. Harmon: LePage’s education reforms a win for Maine students

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All the flapping, squawking and screeching that greeted the LePage administration’s “letter-grade” ranks for Maine public schools was intensified earlier this month by the release of the details of Gov. LePage’s bill, L.D. 1529, supporting an increase in the number of charter schools and, much more controversially, the provision of tax-funded vouchers for private schools, including religious schools.

Set aside for a moment political calculations about the chances of success for the latter programs given the current ideological makeup of the Legislature, which is controlled by a party heavily indebted to public school unions for support.

Consider instead, if even for one brief, shining moment, how successfully LePage and his supporters are keeping the education establishment on the defensive to justify the current system, which is marked both by success in some areas and dismal failure in others.

If nothing else comes of this effort, at least the information blackout on alternative forms of K-12 education are making the front pages of state newspapers.

Voters are being informed that public schools are not all wonderful, and that other states and other nations have found that supporting parental choice in education, rather than concentrating all their efforts on union-monopoly public schools alone, yields significant results.

LETTER GRADES FOR SCHOOLS: The ranking of the state’s public schools by grades ranging from “A” to “F” was greeted by members of the educational establishment and its supporters as an exercise in gross discrimination, not objective evaluation based on actual outcomes — which, in fact, it was.

Being rated by outcomes is the last thing establishment educators want, because such ratings show the absolute disconnect between the amount of money spent per pupil in a given school system and the learning results of its students.

That was shown by the fact that schools in prosperous communities such as Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth were ranked highly, and nearby Portland schools got low grades, even though, according to Maine Department of Education figures, per-pupil expenditures were higher in Portland in the 2011-12 school year ($10,789) than in Cape Elizabeth ($10,726) or Falmouth ($10,371).

Surveying the spending charts (which exclude construction and transportation costs, among other expenses) at the MDOE site shows many more interesting comparisons along that line, and readers are invited to find their own, but what’s interesting to note is that the disparity in grades was pounced on by establishment figures not as a sign that some schools were “failing,” but that the schools receiving lower grades were ones with many students from the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum.

That is, students without middle- or upper-class environments outside the school system are less likely to succeed in school and become as prepared for either post-secondary education or gainful employment after graduation than those students who live in more favored home environments.

That’s true enough to be tautological, amounting to saying that “students who are better prepared for school will do better in it,” but it proves a further point that the establishment critics of the state’s grading system will never say, even though it is the logical conclusion of their premise:

Public school systems in Maine and elsewhere have obviously and critically failed to figure out how to educate students from poorer families (often single-parent households) no matter how much money they spend on the effort.

That is to say that, even though their spending per pupil is among the highest in the nation, urban schools districts in such cities as New York, Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, and many, many more, have lower graduation rates and much lower student achievement ranks on standardized testing than many smaller schools that spend much less per student.

One obvious conclusion from that undeniable fact is that, whatever the answer is, “more money” is not it.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: One attempt to find an answer is in the charter school movement.

Put simply, charter schools are public schools supported by taxes that are operated separately from the rest of the school system under a somewhat different set of organizational and operational standards, according to the “charters” under which they are established.

Among those standards are the relaxation of union rules for staffing and work conditions; the acceptance of students who want to come, not just ones living in a neighborhood, town or region served by a particular school; and an agreement for higher levels of parental involvement in their children’s education.

Charter schools typically operate under the direction of groups outside the established school district’s oversight. Some schools specialize in given areas, such as math, science or art, while others offer a more general and comprehensive course of study.

Are they successful? The evidence is mixed, showing variations that are apparently due to the competence of their governing bodies, but some have produced graduates who do at least as well, and many times better, than equivalent public school students — whose peers they are, after all.

Needless to say, teachers’ unions hate them.

The reasons they give run the gamut, from “diluting the taxpayer’s commitment to public education” (if public schools have fewer students because of charter schools, why should they get the same amount of money as they did in the past?) to “people have less control over the quality of education at charter schools” (even though attendance is voluntary, parental involvement is mandated and parents can pull their kids out if they aren’t learning anything — which isn’t always the case with public schools).

In truth, the real reason boils down to, “The unions don’t control these schools.” As if that were a bad thing….

So, Mainers who care about the quality of public education should support Gov. LePage’s moves to establish more charter schools more quickly than we now plan to do. Current law puts a ceiling of just 10 schools statewide in the next 10 years.

That’s a long time to wait for something that may have a huge benefit. Why let only let 10 flowers bloom when you can have a hundred?

SCHOOL CHOICE: Another attempt L.D. 1529 makes to reach students that public schools leave behind is the “parental choice” option.

Maine has had school vouchers since 1873, when the “tuitioning” of students from towns without schools to towns with them began. The receiving schools have always included both public institutions and many private “academies.”

Maine is not one of the 37 states with its own version of the so-called “Blaine amendments,” ironically named for the 19th-century congressman, Speaker of the House James G. Blaine of Maine, which were passed in many states specifically to keep money from going to Roman Catholic schools, but it makes little difference.

Religious schools are still excluded from Maine’s voucher law, and a suit to include them on equal protection grounds failed in the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago.

Vouchers — or more recently, “school choice” expressed as either vouchers or tax credits — involve a per-pupil share of a school district’s tax receipts essentially handed over to parents to spend at any school, public or private (and secular or religious), that they wish their child or children to attend.

Because the district does not pay the schools directly, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their constitutionality in a 2002 decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, ruling 5-4 to uphold an Ohio voucher program as representing parents’ rights to spend such funds as they wished, thus avoiding any unconstitutional entanglement of church and state.

As Wikipedia notes, vouchers were strongly promoted by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who argued for the modern concept of vouchers in the 1950s, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. The view further gained popularity with the 1980 TV broadcast of Friedman’s series ‘Free to Choose,’ for which volume 6 was devoted entirely to promoting ‘educational freedom’ through programs like school vouchers.

Since then, studies of successful voucher schools (including a 2003 Manhattan Institute study) have shown not only their effectiveness, but some improvement in nearby public schools likely due to competitive pressure.

The largest statewide program in the United States is in Indiana, which in 2011 passed a program to offer up to $4,500 to families to spend on a wide variety of schooling options. The program was upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this year.

IN CONCLUSION, L.D. 1529 has plenty of critics, but their criticisms appear in many cases to be self-serving and overly restrictive. Competition works, as Milton Friedman knew.

Yes, Democrats will continue to stand in the schoolhouse door on these issues, showing again only that they serve their union backers at the expense of children.

But the ice has been broken. If this bill fails this time, it can and will be resurrected in the months and years to come.

Sooner or later, our kids will get all the chances they deserve to succeed. They deserve nothing less — and cannot be denied it forever.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

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