Correction: In a 2/24 piece by Sam Patten entitled GOP Pushes for Parental Rights, Transparency in Maine Schools, the author mistakenly paraphrased Rep. Laurel Libby describing how the COVID-19 pandemic “brought the classroom into the living room.” What Libby actually said was that the pandemic-necessitated virtual classrooms and helped parents better see what is going on in Maine schools today.
With a growing number of Maine parents seeking more input in their children’s education, Republicans in the state legislature are promoting a series of bills to meet some of the demands parents are making in school board meetings across the state.
Protecting parental rights, restoring religious exemptions for vaccine mandates, expanding career technical education, getting more transparency in curriculum and introducing school choice are among the key initiatives drawing attention in Augusta, lawmakers tell The Maine Wire.
Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) is working on a bill to create educational opportunity accounts, such as those that currently exist in the state of Arizona, as a big step towards school choice. Under such a system, the money that the state spends per pupil would follow that student – even beyond their local districts if needs can’t be met by the schools there. It’s a controversial concept that powerful teachers unions, like the Maine Education Association (MEA), oppose.
Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred), the ranking Republican on the legislature’s joint committee on education, sees reform advocates working to pull back the curtain on how curriculum is being developed, adopt some kind of parents’ bill of rights, and refocus the discussion on what the goals of the education system should be.
A recent national study showed that 65 percent of fourth-graders in America can’t read with any proficiency. More troubling still, testing results from last fall saw Mainers’ performance on reading and math below the national average. Sampson is worried that shifting priorities in the schools are allowing what were once called “the basics” – reading, writing and arithmetic – to fall behind.
“Today we’re reaping the fruit of the Common Core,” Sampson told The Maine Wire, referring to a nation-wide top-down re-write of America’s curriculum to respond to a complicated series of metrics.
A decade ago, policymakers were sharply divided over Common Core, with criticism coming mostly from conservative Republicans.
Today, critics of Common Core are legion.
In 2021 the center-left Brookings Institute called Common Core “a failure.”
But the top-down culture at the center of Common Core persists. In our state, both the Maine School Management Association and a number of school districts are represented by one law firm: Drummond Woodsum. The Portland-based firm’s schools and education practice area has a roster of over 40 professionals, suggesting a robust revenue source.
At the same time, Maine parents in varied districts throughout the state are speaking out about being kept in the dark by school boards and administrators. Some parents are concerned that firms like Drummond Woodsum are teaching the boards and superintendents how to limit – legally – parental involvement. Others seem the ideologically liberal firm as the purveyor of far-left policies on gender ideology and equity programs.
Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Oxford) announced last month her bill for transparency in how school districts adopt their curricula, and said parents should be able to opt out of material with which they fundamentally disagree.
Rep. Gary Drinkwater (R-Milford) has authored a bill to bring back the religious exemption to vaccine mandates for students that Mainers enjoyed until a 2019 law closed the exemption.
Last month, the Bangor newspaper called the push for initiatives like Drinkwater’s “uphill,” but religious and medical exemptions have strong support throughout the state. A peoples’ veto on the question was overridden by referendum in 2020, but the landscape has also changed since then.
Yesterday, The Maine Wire spoke with a Cumberland County mother who pulled her daughter out of the local school system when it forced her to wear a mask against medical advice. If she is one of a growing number of concerned parents around the state, then bills like Drinkwater’s may be more viable than credit’s been given.
Meanwhile, Maine’s community college system ended its mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month – removing one of the last barriers to a tuition-free education. In a debate last fall, Governor Janet Mill said she would not rule out imposing a vaccine mandate on Maine schools in the future.
In total, there are more than 200 bills before the education committee and many of these are still placeholders. House leadership wants them to clear 60 percent of these by April 1st, Sampson said, which is a daunting if not impossible goal. Given that the session ends the third week of June, Republicans will have to work quickly – and in unison – to let worried parents know they’re listening.