Republican radio address: Maine Needs Real Education Reform

For the weekend of March 20 - 21, 2010

Greetings, this is Josh Tardy, leader of the Republicans in the Maine House.

The legislative session is coming down to its last two weeks, and a number of important bills are still awaiting action. Republicans are paying close attention to three emergency bills that would affect the operation of Maine schools. All three were proposed by the governor and his education commissioner. And all three are advertised as crucial to help Maine qualify for a federal grant in the Race to the Top program. We would stand to receive up to $75 million if the Obama Administration rules that our school reforms would significantly improve educational outcomes.

It’s obvious that reforms are necessary. Nearly one quarter of Maine students drop out before finishing high school. There’s not much of a future in today’s world for dropouts. Our spending per student of more than $11,000 is among the highest in the country, yet our tests results are not impressive. With the kind of money we are investing, our kids should be in the top ranks of the nation. Unfortunately, they are not. And needless to say, a grant of as much as $75 million would alleviate our budget crisis.

The federal stimulus package passed by Congress last year included the Race to the Top program, funded with $4.35 billion of taxpayer dollars. The idea is to incentivize states to enact bold and meaningful education reform to expand school choice and improve quality. All states will compete for grants in the Race to the Top sweepstakes, but the money will go to those that submit the best plans to shake up an education status quo that is failing far too many children. We cannot tolerate massive numbers of uneducated or undereducated people. Our national security and our economic survival depend on a well-educated population.

Under the Race to the Top grant guidelines, Maine has an opportunity to win $75 million to implement promising education reforms. These reforms could include the implementation or expansion of charter schools. They also could include tougher school and teacher assessments as well as higher standards to hold teachers and administrators accountable for poor performance.

Most states are going all out to compete for this money – not just because they need the cash but because they recognize the vital importance of educational excellence. In Tennessee, the governor and the Legislature went into special session to hammer out their reforms. They emerged with a new teacher evaluation system, alternative teacher certification programs, and state authority to act swiftly in chronically low-performing schools. In California, the state broke down the firewall between student achievement and teacher evaluations. It also gave school choice rights to parents whose children are trapped in bad schools.

In Illinois, the Legislature approved 45 new charter schools for Chicago and 15 other charter schools for the rest of the state, for a total of 13,000 new charter school slots. In Louisiana, the Legislature lifted its charter school cap last June after U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan told them that was essential for the state to compete for a Race to the Top grant.

The list goes on and on. Forty states have already submitted comprehensive reform packages to Washington. Massive and profound changes are being made to revitalize education and make sure kids are ready to compete in a fast-moving global economy. This Race to the Top program has lit a bonfire under a calcified and union-dominated school establishment that for too long has accepted mediocrity and failure.

Meanwhile, Maine is still at the starting gate. The governor’s three single-page bills are too feeble and inadequate to compete for a federal grant. The most aggressive of them, LD 1801, is billed as an act to establish innovative schools. But this is motion without movement. It would be painful indeed to forfeit tens of millions of dollars because our government lacks the imagination and determination to enact no-nonsense education reforms.

The superintendent of schools from Greenville, Heather Perry, told the Education Committee that there is nothing in this bill that makes schools any more innovative than they currently can be. She advocated for an amendment to allow charter schools. And that is precisely what is now happening. Committee member Alan Casavant has attached charter school legislation to the bill. It will emerge from committee as a divided report, which guarantees a floor debate in both chambers. A charter school bill passed the House last June but was killed in the Senate. This time, with serious money riding on the outcome, hopefully the Senate will vote for meaningful change. We will soon find out.

This is Josh Tardy. Thank you for listening.