The Right View: Who pulls the strings for Maine education policy?

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While everyone is busy freaking out about last week’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report, Gov. Paul LePage and House Speaker Mark Eves, I’d like to point out that all of this noise speaks to a much larger scandal surrounding education in Maine.

The 2011 law that ushered in the era of charter schools, and the now-ensuing fallout, is but a blip on the radar of what has been happening behind the scenes in education policy and control.

Over the past couple of decades, unelected, outside, and powerfully backed individuals have been quietly taking education control out of parents’ and teachers’ hands.

Outside money and influence now control our education agenda, and your locally elected school board has been rendered essentially impotent. Centralized curriculum coordinators and education “consultants” now run the show, and commissioners of education (insert Stephen Bowen here) go on after leaving their posts to hold lucrative positions within such consultant groups, having left chaos in their wakes.

Like Common Core, this particular flavor of education takeover in Maine comes from outside consultants, foundations who can, and do, routinely throw money around; self-avowed “disruptive reformers,” and unelected, so called “education policy experts” who have zero teaching, classroom or childhood development experience.

One such foundation with huge influence in Maine is the tax-exempt Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Located in Quincy, Massachusetts, and founded in 1998 by the Nellie Mae Corp., it lists over $16 million in grants “and other assistance to governments and organizations in the United States,” over $543 million in total assets, and almost $4 million in employee salaries and benefits.

The organization’s mission is to “stimulate transformative change of public education systems across New England.” Indeed. It was a huge lobbying force behind LD 1422, the law in Maine that forced proficiency-based education upon our kids, even though according to Nellie Mae’s own documents, student-guided learning and demonstrating proficiency as a better method of education is only a “theory of action.”

I wonder, how many of you, who go to your local school board meetings, ever were given a chance to comment on Nellie Mae? Did your board members take a vote to invite them into your child’s school to usher in “transformative change” or thrust a theoretical experiment upon your child?

Parents in Portland and Sanford may recall NMEF President Nicholas Donohue in 2012 bestowing a nearly $9 million grant to those schools because they were “most aligned with our theory of change.” So much theory, so little time.

So who gave these people control over education in Maine, and where does all of their grant money come from?

For the NMEF at least, one source is the Hoplite Offshore Fund, an entity listed under “Transferee Foreign Corporation” on NMEF’s tax return. Hoplite’s principal place of business is listed as New York, but the jurisdiction of the organization is the Cayman Islands. The Securities and Exchange Commission lists 225 investors who participated in this company’s initial offering, and the total amount sold thus far as $1.5 billion.

Yes, Virginia, there is a hedge fund, and three gentlemen by the name of John Lykouretzos, Ian Goodall and Mark Cook seem to be at the helm of it, living in New York and the Cayman Islands, respectively. Have any of you ever met them at a school board parent coffee?

This affects higher education, as well. According to Investopedia, “Nellie Mae was created in order to purchase student loans, securitizing them to be sold off to investors” (that sounds reminiscent of the housing loan collapse). Nellie Mae, with its $2.6 billion loan portfolio, was acquired by fellow student loan giant Sallie Mae in 1999, helping to create NMEF.

With Sallie Mae standing to gain even further profits by students staying in college longer, an investigation is warranted into the influence that NMEF had in Maine in pushing LD 1422, mandating proficiency-based education by law, where students can take “as much time as they need” to understand a topic. It is only a matter of time now before this bleeds into higher education, where the student loan puppet-masters would stand to become even more enriched by students taking “as much time as they need” to get their degrees.

An investigation is also warranted into the Memorandum of Understanding between NMEF and the Maine Department of Education, originated in December 2012, which, among many other things calls for “a major effort to create public will for the change” to the purely theoretically “better” proficiency-based education.

In fact, while we’re at it, let’s investigate all understandings the Department of Education has engaged in. If OPEGA and the Legislature want to engage in a truly meaningful probe, one whose outcome would have a profound impact on every public school child in the state, I suggest they start here.

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