Reform red in tooth & claw and entitlement to choice

Reform red in tooth and claw

Friday, March 22, I attended the Governor’s Conference on Education.  The conference featured presentations by free-market education reformers like the Friedman Foundation and Students First which generally advocate for more standardized testing, fewer unions, and less public oversight in education.  No one even mentioned what makes Finland’s schools the envy of the world.

Regarding market-reforms sapping the capacity of neighborhood schools, the Friedman Foundation in particular holds a Strangeloveian enthusiasm for natural selection with their conference representative observing that “declining enrollments are a positive, natural process.”

The keynote speaker was Tony Bennett, not the singer but the state superintendent of education who lost re-election in Indiana last November and who now has landed on his feet as Florida’s new schools’ chief.

Retaining his demeanor as a basketball coach, Bennett exudes conviction and testosterone when he speaks about his vision of school improvements driven by competition under state-sponsored A-F grading like that proposed by Governor LePage.  Seated in the front row, the Governor seemed to enjoy the show, even when subject to Bennett’s own hectoring about getting out from his Statehouse office more frequently.

Tellingly, Bennett confessed that he believes he failed in Indiana because he was unable to bring along educators in support of his agenda.

By that measure, it seemed to bode poorly for Maine schools that the presenters at the Governor’s conference included no teachers, or even school board members, just professional advocates for inserting market mechanisms into public education with a wedge and maul.

Expanding entitlement via choice

Maine law allows school superintendents by mutual agreement to permit student transfers between school districts by individual request.  This mechanism provides a sort of relief valve for students in unusual circumstances who might benefit from a change of school.

Historically, superintendents receive around 2000 such requests per year and approve more than 90 percent by mutual agreement.  The remaining agreements not approved by superintendents may be appealed to the Commissioner of Education.

The current Commissioner of Education, who advocates openly that he believes students shouldn’t be constrained within any community boundaries of school governance and finance, states that he now will approve all appeals for the transfer of students to any district that parents prefer and which might provide improved educational opportunity.

In pursuit of this policy over the past year, the Commissioner has approved 93% (86 of 92) of the transfer appeals that he has received.

This has caused widespread alarm from those who fear that such wholesale expansion of individual entitlement burdens communities by weakening the mutual commitment to governance and funding of local schools.  The ultimate consequence may indeed be that families no longer need to commit to the support of local schools as they can instead thrive without consequence in districts with lower tax bills that under-fund neighborhood schools while enjoying without obligation the benefits of the commitments of citizens in other communities.

It is not difficult to imagine the destabilizing inequities that could follow from such policy and the resulting damage to educational opportunity to those logistically unable to avail themselves to this expanded entitlement to “school choice.”

On Monday afternoon, our Committee heard testimony on two bills which seek to regulate the Commissioner’s current policy of wholesale approval for interdistrict transfer.

One doesn’t usually see the Commissioner express deep pique with proposed legislation, let alone express a policy preference so strongly in opposition to a bill with committee member sponsorship.  But, in his hearing testimony, the Commissioner made his objection very plain.

In summary, the Commissioner holds that, in the pursuit of individual school choice, an individual is no longer entitled merely to a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” but rather to the better of any two imaginable opportunities, regardless of any civic consequences of governance or finance.  If a parent submits a request to have a child attend a school in a different community, the Commissioner believes he must override any local objection and mandate the transfer.

More incredibly, the Commissioner asserts that in any exercise of this authority to override, the state bears no compunction to square the resulting mandated redirection of local tax dollars.

Because advocating for such high-handedness of state authority without consequence of cost creates cognitive dissonance for conservatives, advocates for this sort of expanded entitlement to subsidized choice deflect attention by characterizing any financial objection as anti-child.

But anyone who believes that community governance and funding capacity are divorceable from individual opportunities for children never has been fundamentally responsible for providing public education.

One would hope that Maine’s Commissioner for Education understands that his constitutional obligation is to all Maine students and the system of public education that comprehensively supports them, not to a laissez-faire ideology that seeks its overall weakening.

Our committee works these bills on Monday.

News reports

Friday, March 22

Monday, March 25

Tuesday, March 26

Wednesday, March 27.

Thursday, March 28

Friday, March 29

Week ahead: