Republican radio address: Time For Real Education Reform

For the weekend of April 17-18, 2010

Greetings, this is Josh Tardy, leader of the Republicans in the Maine House. The Legislature wrapped up its work for the year last Monday and a new Legislature will take its place after the November elections. The 124th left town with a lot of accomplishments under its belt. Perhaps the one with the greatest impact on Maine residents was the state budget, which is now $800 million smaller that the last budget. That marks the first time in nearly 40 years that a state budget has declined from year to year. The effects will be felt far and wide – from schools and town halls to the MaineCare program. No one likes drastic cuts, but the Legislature had no choice. Tax revenues are down by $1 billion over the last 18 months. By law the budget must be balanced, and tax hikes at a time like this were out of the question.

When the next Legislature convenes, it will face a similar financial challenge. With the end of the stimulus program and heavy investment losses in the pension fund for retired teachers and state workers, they may need to cut another $1 billion or more. That’s about one-fifth of state spending. Needless to say, it will be a grueling experience for those intrepid souls who step up to perform a vital civic duty by serving in the Legislature. I wish them well.

During the final days before we left Augusta, most of the attention fell on the unexpected demand by the majority party for yet another round of bonds. In all the commotion, another unfortunate development was overlooked. When you consider Maine’s economic plight, you might think legislators would take advantage of any federal programs that would bring more funding into our state. But on April 7th, the majority party instead took action that could cost us up to $235 million. They did so by voting to sabotage one of Governor Baldacci’s most important school reform bills. The damage was done by a poison pill amendment to LD 1799 by Senator Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat. It’s no accident that the Maine Education Association – the teachers’ union – was very much on the scene as these events unfolded.

Through the Race to the Top program and other reform initiatives, the Obama Administration is putting serious money in play. The idea is to pit states against each other to enact bold and meaningful education reform to expand school choice and improve quality. No one would argue that Maine’s public schools don’t need improvement. Nearly one quarter of our students drop out before finishing high school. Our annual spending per student of more than $11,000 is among the highest in the country, yet our test 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.

The governor put forth three bills designed to get Maine into the Race to the Top sweepstakes. If our reforms are judged significant enough to make a real difference, we stand to receive as much as $75 million. Through other funding titles, possibly including a revamped No Child Left Behind program, we have an additional $160 million on the line.

One of the governor’s bills, LD 1799, would have allowed school systems to use student achievement scores in teacher evaluations, but only if the local school district and local teachers agreed to do so. Holding teachers more accountable for student performance is a bedrock principle of President Obama’s criteria for funding decisions. It might be the most important factor. The Baldacci bill did the bare minimum to qualify.

But Senator Alfond and his union cheerleaders were not about to empower school districts to develop their own teacher evaluation systems. They ripped out the guts of a bill intended to remove obstacles from local school officials and instead imposed even more. It amounts to a striking assault on local control. The Alfond amendment prohibits the use of any teacher evaluation program not sanctioned by a committee of five unelected defenders of the status quo, operating out of Augusta. The committee includes the teachers’ union, of course, but nobody representing parents, taxpayers, the higher education community or business leaders. We’re talking about in-your-face power politics.

The Democrats passed this bill despite overwhelming opposition from school superintendents. They also ignored an opinion from the Attorney General’s office, warning that the Alfond amendment could prevent Maine from even applying for a Race to the Top grant. The possibility of getting $75 million would go down the drain. It’s too bad this sad spectacle didn’t get more coverage in the Maine media. It would have given taxpayers a glimpse into what happens when one party controls the state Legislature for more than 30 years.

This is Josh Tardy. Thank you for listening