Gov. Paul LePage’s plans for education reform were met with mixed reactions Thursday among educators.
A few of his plans floated right by with scarcely any controversy, while others provoked fear and loathing.
Predictably, the governor’s call to use public education money to fund private and religious schools prompted the biggest concerns. Some fear that the plan puts ideology ahead of what’s best for students who go to public schools and that it could affect the big cities with a lot of diversity.
“This is the hot potato,” said Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster. “It’s particularly significant in a place like Lewiston.”
Webster, like others who reacted to the idea on Thursday, questioned whether that part of the governor’s plan is constitutional — a clause in the U.S. Constitution prohibits using public money to fund religious establishments.
“I think we need to look at this one closely,” Webster said. “I’ll be following it with interest.”
Even those who would benefit from the change in funding could see the potential for problems.
“As a Catholic, I am pleased that Gov. LePage has included religious schools in his agenda for school change,” said Donald Fournier, principal of St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, “but I understand the difficulty in what would be, in essence, a diversion of much-needed funding for public schools.
“I believe Catholic education is an important choice that should remain a viable option for parents, especially those who feel as we do that spirituality should not be divorced from education,” Fournier said. “However, I would not want us to compete for public funds at the expense of what the state may call under-performing schools. Rather, I would hope that our legislators’ discussions should focus on what we could do to work together to provide our children with everything they need to become responsible citizens and be successful in life.”
For Webster, the funding matter is a source of worry. On the other hand, he found himself in perfect agreement with the governor on other parts of the proposal.
Creating a more common calendar among the schools, Webster said, “is right on.”
He also agreed with the plan to allow parents more freedom to decide which school their children will attend, as well as the call for a better system of evaluating teachers and principals.
“This parallels exactly what we’re doing in Lewiston,” Webster said.
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin likewise found both good and worrisome in the reforms. Giving parents a choice of schools, she said, is a matter that needs more exploring.
“I understand the premises for ‘Schools of Choice,” Grondin said, “and I am hopeful that the Department of Education will reach out to superintendents to have further conversation about the possible impact of such legislation on school resources.
“The Department of Education has put forth a bold, strategic plan that supports Auburn School Department’s commitment to work hard to provide an educational system so that every Auburn student is expertly prepared to be successful in a world that is yet to be fully imagined.”
The LePage administration has dubbed its education initiative “Students First.” LePage and Education Commissioner Steven Bowen acknowledged that their proposals represent significant changes in the state’s education system.
Not that they had to point that out.
“The commissioner’s vision is a departure from the previous reform agendas promoted by the department,” said Oxford Hills School District Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett. “It is an attempt to redesign the system which, for the most part, has been unchanged for over 100 years.
“It is clear,” Hartnett said, “that as the demands of college, career and citizenship evolve, schools need to adapt and evolve to better prepare students.”
Hartnett could not agree or disagree with the governor’s plan as a whole.
“I am discussing more the concept of ‘customizing’ education proposed by the commissioner,” he said.