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.

  • NHactivistGOP

    While you’re at it, investigate NH too. We did the same thing here!! Check Nellie Mae’s influence ($$) that’s flowed into the state and schools like Pittsfield and now Rochester

  • 3SwimMom

    Sounds like it’s time for School Board members (and parents) to pick up a copy of Sarah Reckhow’s book (Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Policy)!

  • mainemom

    Fascinating article. In our district, we are working with the Reinventing Schools Coalition, which seems to be funded mostly by the Gates Foundation.

    • beth schultz

      Gates is also a large donor to both the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Reinventing Schools Coalition, but Foundations don’t need to disclose their donor list. The Gates Foundation fully funded the Reinventing Schools pilot program in Alaska.

  • jbs01

    No mention of Jeb Bush’s charter school friendly educational reform think tank. I wonder why would Julie not include them in her list of “outside influences”?

    • David Lentini

      Julie’s article focused on Nellie Mae. I’m sure we’ll see more.

      • jbs01

        I doubt it. She seems to cherry pick facts and examples to suit her partisan point of view.

  • David Lentini

    Great work, Julie! This is just the tip of the huge iceberg that is education influence peddling and meddling—all for profit at the taxpayers expense and to the detriment of our children. These people come from across the political spectrum and see money as the self-justifying power to run (and ruin) our lives. And of course, their kids go to elite private schools that don’t ever worry about Common Core, Performance-Based Education, testing, or any other inanity; their kids get a proper classical education fit for the ruling class.

  • Emily Talmage

    Kudos to Julie McDonald-Smith for having the courage to research and write this very important article. How many Mainers know that we when we applied for Race to the Top funding in 2009, we agreed to become an “Innovation Lab” state with the Council for Chief State School Officers – an organization also funded by Nellie Mae, and run by Stephen Bowen? I have masters degrees in both education and developmental psychology, and can tell you that proficiency-based education has NOT been proven to be best practice. In fact, it has been tried and rejected countless times throughout history. Our state is being used by those in the digital learning and student loan industries to generate the “proof points” they desire, meaning that our children are being used as guinea pigs. This ought to be deeply troubling to anyone, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum. Again, thank you to Julie for bringing this to the public’s attention.

  • Kevin McCarthy

    JMS has written 19 columns this year. Five of them were complaints/critiques of various state education programs. I initially attributed her fixation on this topic to the fact that her kids are in public schools. But is there something else going on? Her bio in this column reveals her marriage to a member of the Maine State Board of Education. But her bio in her last column about Chellie Pingree did not contain this info. Curiously, her bio in the column before that about Proficiency Based Education also mentions her connection to the State Board of Education. Her columns earlier than that – whether they touched on education or not – contained no such disclosures. It’s hard to say how important all this is, if at all. Still, somebody (presumably her editor) thinks it important enough to mention finally. That this disclosure is now being made selectively leads to other questions. One-quarter of her column output this year has addressed state education policy and she has not discussed once (and it is barely noted at all) her personal connection to the state education policy makers. It’s also noteworthy that not once in her critique of education policy has she implicated Governor LePage when clearly this has all been going on during his watch. Is that a function of her relationship with a Board member (who was appointed by LePage)?

    • mom2three

      In response to your thoughts about the relevance of this topic, I feel that it’s absolutely important! From a parent’s perspective, I’m glad that someone is actually writing about education policy in the Maine. Massachusetts has the Pioneer Institute, a non-partisan public policy research organization with a staff dedicated to Massachusetts education policy. Unfortunately, Maine has no such organization, so parents are left to figure things out on their
      own. Washington State even has an Education Ombuds. From what I’ve
      been able to gather, LD 1422 will be tested out in Maine public schools and
      then be pushed into NH, VT, CT and RI via the New England Secondary School Consortium (which is also funded by Gates and Nellie Mae). It’s
      interesting that Massachusetts is not a member of this consortium.
      Apparently, Maine is a “laboratory state” for the CCSSO-led Innovation Lab Network. According to the MOU between the Maine DOE and Nellie Mae, Maine students will be “pioneers” in this experimental reform. It’s unfortunate that parents need to figure this out on their own. Personally, I feel that Maine’s charter schools should be the ones to be used to test out Nellie Mae’s theory of education reform, not the public schools. This way, parents would have the option to opt their child into a proficiency-based instruction pilot program.
      It’s interesting that our town academies found it necessary to have
      their lobbyist secure an exemption from LD 1422, but parents were never given the opportunity to weigh in on LD 1422 at the local level. Here’s some
      suggested reading on this topic: Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics by Sarah Reckhow.

    • Karen Letourneau

      She disclosed her connection to education with pieces about education. It’s the information she provides that matters. It appears as though you might be trying to distract readers from her message. Your opinion is that she has a fixation. What does that have to do with the information? Do you dispute that?

      • Kevin McCarthy

        It’s curious that she has disclosed her personal relationship to the LePage administration only twice. It’s also curious that she has NOT disclosed her personal relationship with a State education policymaker in 3 of the 5 columns she has written about education in this state. Regardless of her disclosures, her style is such that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction or “information” from opinion.

  • beachmom2

    This is the type of thing that happens when states and school boards just can’t bring themselves to say, “no” to “free” money. It always comes with strings attached. The accompanying psychobabble used to justify the educational experiments is dizzying and takes time to think through to the point where you can see through the real mess it is.