Republican radio address

For the weekend of August 1, 2010

Greetings, this is Kerri Prescott, state representative from Topsham.

If you have been following school reform in Maine, you probably were not surprised by the news out of Washington this week. In the competition for money from the Race To The Top program, the state was denied stimulus dollars by federal education officials.

Maine was among 36 states trying to make the cut for round two of the program, which will dole out billions of dollars to states that are undertaking serious reforms to expand school choice and improve quality. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 18 states and the District of Columbia are finalists in this bare-knuckled competition that pits states against each other for federal cash. Our New England neighbors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts were named finalists, but Maine did not make the grade. This means that $75 million that Maine schools could have used to carry out much-needed reforms will go elsewhere during a time when we need every dollar we can find to solve the state budget crisis.

It’s hard to argue that Maine schools don’t need improvement. Nearly one-fourth of our students drop out before finishing high school. What kind of employers are looking for high school dropouts?  Our annual spending per student is more than $11,000, one of the highest levels in the nation, and our teacher-to-student ratio is one of the lowest. With the enormous amounts of tax money flowing to Maine schools, you would think our kids would be in the top ranks of the nation. But our test results are not impressive.

When the Race To The Top program began, most states went all-out to compete, not just because they needed the cash but because they recognized the vital importance of educational excellence. They know their kids must be equipped for a fast-moving global economy, where they will compete against highly motivated workers from China, India, Brazil and other emerging nations. They also understand that a well-educated workforce is critical to our national future. The American standard of living and our leadership in technology can’t survive if the rising generation does not have the quality education they will need to sustain our way of life.

In Tennessee, the governor and Legislature went into special session to hammer out major reforms. They emerged with a new teacher evaluation system, alternative teacher certification programs and state authority to move swiftly in chronically low-performing schools. California broke down the union firewall between student achievement and teacher evaluations. In Illinois, the Legislature approved 60 new charter schools.

Maine's response consisted of three bills submitted by Governor Baldacci. The ruling Democrats in the Legislature had a choice. They could take those bills and toughen them up to give us a fighting chance for a Race To The Top grant. Or they could simply maintain the status quo. The Democrats opted for the status quo. First, they killed off an attempt to allow charter schools in Maine, which was almost a prerequisite for a Race To The Top award. Then the Senate Democrats went to work, tearing out the guts of the governor's most important bill and even attacking local control.

The Maine Department of Education salvaged what it could for their Race To The Top application. But the department got little support from the education establishment for their reform plan. Only 82 of the state's 216 school districts signed on and the union leaders backed away. The Washington bureaucrats looking for deep commitment to reform probably weren’t impressed by Maine’s lackluster effort.

Moreover, the application itself left much to be desired. A critique by Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center put it like this: “Pervading the whole thing was a constant, nagging sense that instead of growing out of a coherent and thoughtful vision for the future of education in Maine, the application was thrown together in a hurry by people who didn’t really want to do it.” Bowen, a former teacher himself, was taken aback by the numerous grammatical mistakes, misspelled words and incomplete sentences in, of all things, an educational document. Not only did we strike out in the Race To The Top sweepstakes, we actually embarrassed ourselves in the process.

We had our chance.  We missed our opportunity.  It’s time to give our schools a fighting chance and time to enact real reform.  With a new governor being elected this November, let’s hope that we can give our students the tools and education they need to compete in the global economy.

This is Kerri Prescott. Thank you for listening.