The Right View: While press fiddles, education in Maine gets scorched

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The feigned media outrage over William Beardsley’s appointment as acting education commissioner was predictable, but it doesn’t make it any less outrageous or pathetic.

Like a cat on a hot tin roof, the media being reactionary based on partisan politics is nothing new. However, if the horror surrounding concern for the state of education in Maine was real, and the concern for the children so palpable, then there should have been equal outrage for the past 20 years, over the utter abdication of local control in education.

Some media outlets have been busy wringing their hands about violations of the “spirit of the law” when it comes to the process of tapping a commissioner for the Department of Education. This presses the bounds of incredulity. May I remind those so concerned about the administrative process that there are real issues in education out there for them to spend their ink on.

How about using children as research subjects? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spells out in their regulatory requirements that researchers must “consider the potential benefits, risks, and discomforts of the research to children and assess the justification for their inclusion in the research.” There are multiple violations of the spirit of this law in Maine. One only has to look to the Maine Department of Education website to see how much of what they are promoting is still “developmental” or “in progress.” Pilot programs have been launched, concepts are being revisited, and Maine enjoys the designation of “living laboratory” for education reform.

Another example is the department’s “Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First; Great Teachers and Leaders.” The Maine DOE states in its wisdom that it will develop a “Best Practice School” designation for schools undertaking research and development on effective instructional practices. What of the mighty DOE’s progress on putting great teachers in front of our kids? According to its website, the DOE needs to “revisit” this “concept” to determine whether such an effort would achieve the goal of supporting innovative practices, or whether a different approach might work better. Sounds experimental to me.

Or how about looking into the roles that Bellwether Education Partners, the American Enterprise Institute, ACT, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chiefs for Change, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Jump Rope, the Great Schools Partnership, Nellie Mae, and Educate Maine have played in shaping Maine’s education policy through millions of dollars in grant money in recent years?

Or perhaps looking at the publicly available contracts that have been written over the past two decades among the MDOE, various commissioners of education and third-party consultants?

Or an expose on how many millions of dollars have been spent in Maine, say, since 1997, when former Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese (who just happens to sit on the board of GSP) ushered in the beginnings of much of the reform we are strangling under.

If those are not enough suggestions, not much has been written about the lobbying (not by lobbyists) that went on to bring LD 1422, the Proficiency Based Diploma mandate, into Maine, nor do I recall reading much about the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. I love that one. Their stated outcomes include the receipt of “coordinated, strategic lobbying for money and other resources to support the work” and ultimately, lead to “the development of independent learners who customize their own paths to proficiency.” Ah, nothing like creating the conditions to give you the outcome you want.

So while Maine has, and is, wasting untold millions in school district dollars for specialized groups to make money for themselves as the go-to consultants, kids are left behind. And the biggest tragedy of all of this is that proficiency-based education has already been proved to be a failure, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The groups that support the idea are all interrelated, lauding each other, and creating playbooks (thank you Bellwether Education) for how to create clamor for proficiency-based education, regurgitating each other’s false talking points at every opportunity.

So please. Throw as much concern behind some of these issues as the perceived violation of the spirit of the law of a nominee. Then again, if we’re lucky, perhaps a commissioner of education in the future will simply find a way to eliminate the MDOE. Then you won’t have to worry so much about the appointment process.

Julie McDonald-Smith lives in North Yarmouth. She is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer, publicity chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee, and occasional guest host on WGAN 560AM. She is also married to Maine Board of Education member Ande A. Smith. Her column appears every other week.