Maine must resist the policy temptations that would undermine our public schools

Flynn Ross, University of Southern Maine. Originally published in Bangor Daily News Feb. 28, 2017.

Mainers know the value of a good education and support our public schools.

In return Maine students continue to perform above the national average on student achievement tests despite high rates of childhood poverty. Maine was ranked ninth in the world for science and 13th in the world for math in 2012, the last year the PISA data analysis was available, and the first time results were disaggregated by state.

A well-educated population is essential for a strong, well-prepared workforce. The health of our democratic republic also depends on a well-informed citizenry that is resistant to populism.

However, we can see threads of the undermining of public education creeping into Maine. And of course, Maine education policy will be influenced by federal education policy. Three bills up for debate in the U.S. House would significantly undermine public schools: HR 610 would create school vouchers nationally, HR 899 would terminate the U.S. Department of Education, and HR 785 would nationally eliminate collective bargaining rights. All three bills represent significant federal overreach and undermine years of collective work to ensure all children in the U.S. have the right to a quality education.

Despite significant evidence of the failure of voucher programs, HR 610 accompanies the new president’s call for dedicating $20 billion for families to attend charter, private or religious schools rather than our public schools. This policy would come on top of policies that already risk undermining our public schools, such as decreased funding and inequitable distribution of remaining funds among schools.

Taken to their logical conclusion, all of these policies could result in a decidedly unequal system in which only the poorest of the poor attend traditional public schools. This is not a model to which we should aspire.

The Department of Education coordinates research and development in education, school accountability and equitable access for all students, particularly through its Office of Civil Rights. The public data collected through these initiatives have been used to prove the failure of the voucher programs. As much frustration as many educators have with the Department of Education as a large bureaucracy, eliminating it would further undermine the U.S.’s ability to compete with leading developed nations that have coordinated national education systems that help ensure a high-quality education for all their children.

In contrast to these three bills proposed in the House, a national coalition of over 65 organizations has developed a set of policy recommendations to strengthen education by strengthening our teaching workforce. Teach Strong has laid out nine principles to modernize the teaching profession and help ensure that all of our children have access to great teachers. These policy recommendations include the use of student loan forgiveness, teacher residency programs and attention to teachers’ working conditions.

Studies from across the globe show that strong teachers’ unions play an important role in improving teacher quality and raising student achievement. In the field of education, professionalism is what matters for quality rather than the raw efficiency of labor force management. Economist Eunice Han examines the effects of policies over the past decade that weakened teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Indiana and Idaho. In these states, she found, the anti-union policies encouraged high-quality teachers to leave teaching as salaries decreased and working conditions worsened. With teacher shortages, there was less incentive for districts to dismiss low-quality teachers as a result. This is an important consideration as Congress considers HR 785 to eliminate of collective bargaining rights nationally.

Maine is rapidly feeling the effects of a nationwide teacher shortage. Teacher preparation program enrollment declined by 34 percent between 2011 and 2014. And nearly a third of Maine teachers are 52 or older, with 18 percent of the teaching workforce planning to retire in the next five years. Maine teacher pay is 33rd in the nation, amounting to 61 percent of what professionals with similar levels of education earn nationwide. Teacher shortages can be opportunities to invest in recruitment and preparation of high-quality teachers, who will pay lasting dividends. Or Maine can opt for what look like quick fix solutions, such as reduced requirements for teacher licensure, that lead to high teacher turnover and lowered student achievement.

Maine needs to commit to a strong public education system, even in the face of federal policies that could undermine it.

Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She is co-coordinator of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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