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LETTER: Glass houses and charter schools

To the Editor:

The Republican legislators are feeling pretty pleased with themselves. They have reduced the tax burden, restructured Maine’s health insurance system, taken vital steps to fund the state’s unfunded obligations, reformed welfare, rationalized our daft regulatory regime and paid the state’s debts to the hospitals.

Governor LePage is also pleased, but not nearly as pleased as most of the legislators. He had more ambitious goals on all these issues and will be persisting in his efforts to achieve them in the time remaining in his first term. I have a feeling that he really hopes to get the job done in a single term and then get clear of politics and politicians. (Nothing to support this, just a feeling I have.)

Apart from building on the reforms already made, the Republicans have two major state problems, which they have barely touched upon: energy and education. The governor’s stance on this is that the outcomes from Maine’s public education system have not been nearly good enough to justify the expense.

The 125th Maine Legislature has added millions to the state’s public school budgets, reformed the state’s system of support to rural schools and approved the creation of a limited number of “charter schools”—one of the planks in Eliot Cutler’s gubernatorial platform. Paul LePage is open to a much wider variety of initiatives, including all varieties of school choice.

Predictably, even the limited element of choice allowed by the charter school legislation has stirred great distress among supporters of the status quo. A recent op-ed in one of Maine’s daily newspapers by a professor of education at Bowdoin College gives us a flavor of the horrified reaction to the prospect of the established educational panjandrums losing control to a rabble of parents.

Just consider the headline: “Charter schools have a troubled history,” then beneath that in bold letters, “The record in other states offer little prospect for their success in Maine.”

Now here’s an alternative headline for quite a different op-ed: “Public schools have a troubled history.” The story under this headline could be based on the report of an investigation of the Atlanta Public School, which was published shortly after the Bowdoin professor’s little diatribe. The investigation discovered that 80 percent of the schools examined were systematically cheating on state-mandated test results.

A respectful tip of the hat to the 12 schools that were cleared on cheating, but what about the 44 schools, 38 principals and 178 teachers “responsible or directly involved” in this fraud on the public? Bowdoin’s Professor Dorn tell us that there are studies showing that charter schools sometimes fall short of public schools, but I’ve never heard of a study claiming an 80 percent rate of outright fraud.

Earlier in the year the National Institute for Literacy estimated that 47 percent of the adult population of Detroit was functionally illiterate. This means they are unable to use reading, speaking, writing and computational skills in everyday situations.

This is slightly higher than the urban populations of Washington, D.C. and Cleveland. Things are a bit better in some of Detroit’s suburbs. Pontiac has only 34 percent functional illiteracy and in Southfield an paltry 24 percent. None of these contemptible outcomes can be blamed on charter schools.

I am not arguing that Maine’s public school system has sunk to such a low level of honesty and incompetence. I do argue that professors wedded to “mainstream public schools” should be heedful of the proverbial warning against people living in glass houses heaving bricks and stones.

Professor John Frary


Frary is a former U.S. Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia, and can be reached at:

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