November 25, 2012

OUR OPINION: Education goals should not be partisan issues

Much of the advance talk regarding the next legislative session is predicting the fight ahead between Gov. Paul LePage and the new Democratic majorities in House and Senate.

Not everything, however, should be a fight.

Democrats and Republicans will have to work together to pass a budget, and some other areas have such broad common interest that they don't need to break down along partisan lines.

The most obvious is education.

Every member of the Legislature has schools to fund and children to educate in his or her district. Every representative of the people of Maine has an interest in the state having the best education system and producing the most prepared workforce in the country.

Everyone recognizes the important job done by teachers, and everyone cares about the local property taxpayers, who support schools and are stressed by escalating costs.

Opportunities

This common ground is enough to continue what has long been bipartisan work on education reform.

LePage is on board but has been impatient with the pace of change. While we agree that the kids in school now can't wait for policy members to figure out what they want to do, the governor's impatience can slow down the process.

His recent claim that, "If you want a good education in Maine, go to a private school. If you can't afford it, tough luck," fuels the suspicion that he is an enemy of public education, when as governor, he should be its biggest supporter.

The governor and Education Commissioner Steven Bowen should look for ways to put aside the rhetoric and make progress.

LePage's school choice program, which would have sent public money to private and religious schools, was defeated even when his party controlled the Legislature. Progress, however, could be made on charter schools, which were finally made legal by the last Legislature.

State officials should work with local school districts to determine a way to expand charters in Maine (currently three have been approved) in a way that does not cripple the traditional schools from fulfilling their essential mission.

It may be that funding them directly from Augusta, rather than by diverting money from district budgets is a fairer way to provide options for families without interfering with traditional public schools.

Accountability

Teacher accountability is another area where there is an opportunity to make progress. To succeed, this will require collaboration between the department and one of the governor's favorite targets, the Maine Education Association.

Massachusetts, a state with strong unions and Democratic control of the legislative and executive branches, has a rigorous teacher and administrator accountability program.

It not only weeds out the people who shouldn't be teaching, but gives teachers the feedback they need to get better at their jobs. There is no reason that Maine could not use the progress shown in the Bay State as a model for programs that support teachers and provide students with the best teaching available.

Other areas that should not be strictly partisan issues, but should instead present opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to work together:

* Smoothing the transition from secondary school to higher education.

* Helping students and families pay for college.

Which is not say that we won't see fights in Augusta next year. There are two parties for a reason, and their members often don't see things the same way.

Where opportunities to succeed exist, however, we expect all sides to be able to find a way to move forward together.

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