Maine needs more than education reform. It needs an education revolution

Students board the bus after school in September at Vine Street School in Bangor. BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti.

Students board the bus after school in September at Vine Street School in Bangor. BDN photo by Ashley L. Conti.

In recent years, a sad trend has come to emerge with education reform in Maine: A governor proposes a single reform, it gets watered down by a risk-averse Legislature at the behest of special interests, and then the issue is ignored until the next idea is introduced. Once policies are passed, there’s relatively little future evaluation of their effectiveness, or any consideration as to whether that particular reform should be expanded or repealed. Generally, once a reform is passed, we’re stuck with it, in a form close to the original, until it gets superseded by another reform and the cycle repeats anew.

The problem is that, despite the recent education reforms — including policies such as school district consolidation, laptops, magnet schools, Common Core, and charter schools — the results haven’t improved. Maine continues to have relatively high per-pupil spending while having relatively low test scores. One can quibble about exactly where we lie on both of those rankings, but it’s hard to argue that, as a state, we’re spending a lot of money on education — and passing new policies — without getting very good results.

Take Common Core. While the idea of national academic standards is a good one in and of itself, this particular set is not. We should not have adopted standards that were developed behind closed doors without the input of local parents, students, and school boards. What we should have done instead was bring together stakeholders in a public process to create a set of standards that fit Maine specifically. If a national group wants to provide a template, it can be used as a starting point, but it shouldn’t be a be-all and end-all. If this Legislature wants more rigorous standards, they should dump Common Core and develop a set of standards that work for Maine.

Similarly, school consolidation could have been done much, much better, had the Legislature been willing to show more leadership. Rather than simply reducing the number of districts (in a way that conveniently exempted many of the state’s biggest districts) the entire system could have been reexamined. Changes in the administrative structure could have been implemented in a way that truly did reduce administrative costs for everyone. Instead, we have a system that is a mix, working in some areas but falling apart in others.

It’s become clear that simply spending more money on education will not solve our problems. Those who focus exclusively on funding are all too often unwilling to consider where the money goes and how it is spent. They make dollar figures an end in and of itself, rather than trying to make sure each and every student gets the best possible education. This blinds them to some reforms — such as charter schools and school choice — because they’re more worried about funding than about doing what’s right for kids.

If Maine is to have a productive, successful education system, we need to truly follow our state motto and lead. We must consider a complete restructuring of our public education system, not just enact piecemeal reforms. We must consider truly innovative policies that serve as a new model for the nation, rather than simply adopting reforms years after others. We must find the political will to be groundbreaking and innovative, not let apathy continue the status quo.

If this is the result of education reform in the state, perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach. Perhaps, rather than these piecemeal policies, Maine needs a complete overhaul of our system. Perhaps, rather than education reform, Maine needs an education revolution.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.