A paradigm shift in education

My son will turn five years old this month, and I have a problem. Kindergarten registration is next month, and I live on the wrong side of the road.

I live on the west side of a major road in my town, and everyone on my side of the street goes to a certain elementary school. This school has average (at best) test scores, a crumbling building, a lot of distracting behavioral issues among students and is anything but desirable.

Those who live on the east side of the same road, including most of my son’s friends, go to another school. This one is a much newer building, with better technology, better teachers, better test scores and a year-round school calendar. A desirable school, to say the least.

But because we live in an apartment on the west side of the road, rather than an apartment six feet away on the east side of the road, I do not have the option to send my son to the better school that his friends will go to.

The absurdity goes much further when you realize that the distance I live from this school is actually much less than the distance many of the other families that are actually within the zone live from the school. Their children will attend that school.

I, as a concerned parent, am now forced into a decision: either move so that I can reside in the proper geographic location to send my son to that school, or cross my fingers and hope that he will do well at the sub-par school.

We move March 1.

Someone, anyone, justify this system to me.

Education is quickly becoming the demilitarized zone of American politics. Left, center or right, we all agree our system is broken. All ideologies believe in the need for fundamental reform. And a consensus is quickly forming that — at least on this issue — we all have the best of intentions.

When it comes to our kids and making sure they are brought up with the best possible education, we are starting to realize that we all care about the kids more than our political gamesmanship. Well, most of us, at least.

Liberals have increasingly abandoned their belief that conservative education policy is about trying to use schools as a testing ground for evil, profit-driven educational experimentation and market philosophy. Conservatives are increasingly realizing that the left is just as frustrated with the status quo as they are, and are now willing to take a good, hard look at the system.

Certainly, it is true that right and left still differ on policy and there are indeed political brawls over education, but at the very least we don’t tend to question each other’s motivation any longer, as a general rule.

Young, energetic, articulate education reformers are popping up everywhere. Democrats Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee, Arnie Duncan and Corey Booker — to name a few — have all become loud advocates for a new paradigm in education. They have been willing to consider market-based education reforms, have questioned the power of teacher unions, teacher tenure and other former sacred-cow issues.

One of the three major priorities stated in Gov. Paul LePage’s State of the State address was education. LePage has a radical reformer of his own in the Department of Education in Commissioner Steve Bowen.

LePage and Bowen will be pushing big, radical changes in the coming months, and their ideas will find a lot of common ground among well-intentioned members of both parties.

What would I like to see happen? I would like to see money from the state attached to the head of the child, rather than the particular geographic location. There is absolutely no reason that living a foot on the wrong side of the road should be the determining factor for where my son — or anyone else’s child — goes to school.

This would reward high-performing schools, allowing them to grow and expand and serve more students, and it would allow failing schools to wither on the vine.

I would like to see teachers paid more and administrators paid less. I would like to see excellent teachers — such as my wife, Erin — rewarded for their talent, and poor teachers no longer protected by tenure.

But above all, I want to see fundamental change. Try something, try anything. The status quo isn’t working.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.