Unleash educational experimentation

Over the past decade, there has been an interesting convergence between left and right on one issue: education.

That is not to say that Republicans and Democrats do not still hold divergent views on how to fix America’s broken education system. They certainly do. Democrats continue to stress nationalized, standardized, universal solutions like the Common Core State Standards Initiative, while defending teacher’s unions, and believe more money is the answer to scholastic woe. Republicans focus much more on local- and community-based education, school choice, merit pay for teachers and charter schools.

Yet, education reformers in both parties seem to increasingly eschew the typical political demagoguery, because teaching our children and giving them a prosperous future is something that generally unites everyone. There is less tolerance, it seems, for political Russian roulette when our children are involved. That’s why you have seen conservatives push for more funding for education (particularly for teacher pay), rigorous testing and standards and no longer call for the destruction of the U.S. Department of Education. That’s why Democratic reformers, including the ever-controversial Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, have pushed for more school choice and have been actively hostile toward unions.

We seem to be coming closer together on this issue.

Yet some fights remain, and we are likely going to see one soon. A new bill in the legislature introduced Thursday and backed by Gov. Paul LePage seeks to expand the freedom and importance of charter schools in Maine.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, essentially eliminates the counterproductive and arbitrary 10-school limit on charters, while making it easier for poor students to transfer away from struggling schools and into one of these schools.

This directly relates to the governor’s new school grading system. As liberal critics complain that it is a meaningless system that simply highlights which schools have impoverished students in them, LePage is offering a solution that gives those students the promise of an opportunity at a better education. The bill provides funding for tuition as well as transportation for those students to attend another school, including charter and private schools.

Nowhere has the idea of educational experimentation been more noticeably beneficial to people than in New Orleans.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city’s school system was an embarrassing mess. Gut wrenching poverty and a system bereft of innovation or inspiration produced horrible results for students, with lackluster test scores, graduation rates and college admissions.

Yet since Katrina, when most of the city’s schools were washed away, most of the system was replaced by charter schools, which provide fewer rules and more experimentation, offering educators an opportunity to try new things, unencumbered by the typical rules of public schools.

The results have been remarkable. As recently noted by the National Journal, Sci, one of these schools has seen a major advancement in student performance. Its test scores have risen by 25 percent, and roughly 90 percent of its students graduate and go to college. Students are now passing state tests at a 60-percent higher rate.

This is all due to the school’s focus on data collection and analysis, which is allowing teachers to more accurately find out what is and is not working, so they can change course and continue doing what is working. This comes despite the fact that 92 percent of the children enrolled are on the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Maine began to dip its toes in the charter school movement only recently, becoming one of the last states in the union to allow them. Yet even in doing so it left too many restrictions on charters, limiting their growth and effectiveness.

This new bill seeks to lift those restrictions and at the same time seeks to give poor students in failing schools an opportunity to find a better education elsewhere. Allowing teachers and administrators the freedom to try new things, and approach education in less rigid ways, will at least give these students the chance at a better life, which should be the end goal for all of us.

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.