Forecaster Forum: Beem too easily dismisses Cutler's education plan

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Rather than engaging in a thoughtful discussion about Eliot Cutler’s plan to improve Maine’s public education system, Edgar Allen Beem’s recent column about the independent candidate for governor deteriorated into a personal attack.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s exactly how some of Libby Mitchell’s supporters – Mr. Beem among them – are reacting.

Eliot Cutler has proposed, among other ideas, rewarding educators, teams of educators and schools with more time for professional development and collaboration, more opportunities for leadership and better pay for growth in student performance based on a variety of measures (not just test scores).

Cutler also supports legislation to charter innovative, small public schools as alternatives to regular public schools. These charter schools would create opportunities for children for whom the traditional public school experience is not working. Similar legislation has been passed in 40 other states and has fostered dramatic improvements.

The Obama Administration made these types of reforms a centerpiece of the Race to the Top, encouraging states to embrace change and providing financial incentives to those that do (Maine didn’t, and got no money).

And there are lots of teachers in Maine who agree. When I served as chairwoman of the School Board for Cumberland and North Yarmouth, our district collaborated and consulted with teachers and the local union to implement reform, precisely because we all believed it would lead to better student performance, which it did.

The point being that the more control we give a community to educate its own children, the more successful our education system can be.

That’s where Mr. Beem’s argument breaks down. He claims to support local control, but evidently not when it leads to proposals that the state teacher’s union opposes. Regrettably, the leadership of that group lacks the foresight of its local counterparts. They are determined to defend the status quo, even if it means preventing reform that improves education for our children.

And the defenders of the status quo have found their apologist in Mitchell. The state teachers union has given well over $250,000 to support her. Why? Because she doesn’t like charter schools and only this year, under pressure for Race to the Top funding, did she reluctantly agree to eliminate the barrier between student performance and teacher evaluations. In her 30 years in the Legislature, she has successfully fought every effort to make those reforms. The debate over the words “unholy alliance” and Mr. Beem’s reaction to that phrase clouds the real issue – whether the MEA’s support of Mitchell and their alliance is on the side of our students.

By far, though, the most egregious part of Mr. Beem’s piece is his implicit claim that there’s really no need to reform education. “The best schools in Maine are among the best in the country,” he says – so let’s just leave well enough alone.

That’s great if your kids go to one of those schools. But what about the kids who don’t? And even the best schools don’t serve every student. In SAD 51, Yarmouth and Falmouth, some of the highest performing schools in the state, only about 65 percent of 11th-grade students meet proficiency levels in all three subject areas tested by the SAT.

At the core of Cutler’s education plan is one simple idea: all Maine schools can do better. That means every child at every school gets access to quality programs, not just the kids at the best schools. That means we need to create an innovative learning environment that prepares every child for a better future.

And that is why more and more people are, enthusiastically, supporting Eliot Cutler for governor.

Cumberland resident Betts Gorsky is policy director of the Cutler 2010 campaign and former chairwoman of the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors.