While you may disagree with him, Eliot Cutler has been open with his various initiatives for Maine. Cutler has released plans on government reform, healthcare, and energy. Early in the campaign, Cutler made education policy a priority. The candidate stumped for charter schools last November. Cutler took swipes at what he sees as the status quo recently. The Cutler campaign has now released a blueprint for education reform in the state. The reform outline consists of boosting pre-school, allowing charter schools, increasing magnet schools, addressing teacher compensation, and the length of Maine’s school days and years. What may the cost of these reforms be? Are they worth the cost?
“We need to reform public education in Maine from top to bottom,” Cutler recently told the Waterville Rotary Club. “We need to kick open the doors, throw open the windows and welcome a fresh wind of innovation and reform. We need a No Excuses policy for education in Maine.” Parents, teachers, and taxpayers should be in charge of Maine’s education system according to Cutler. The candidate also said decisions should be based on what is best for children, not “the union contract”. How does he hope to achieve those goals?
First Cutler advocates great support for pre-school learning. Developmental screening programs will assess children and provide support when needed. The state will measure success by how many children are reading proficiently at the end of third grade.
During the primary, Steve Rowe spoke about the importance of early education. The idea was that the earlier children are exposed to reading, math, etc. the benefits will be exponential as they progress through school. Much of this exposure should happen at home, but that doesn’t mean it will. Even though it only takes twenty minutes of reading a day to provide substantial benefit a child, many children aren’t read to at all. A past study from the National Institute of Health showed children who received quality pre-K care fared better on vocabulary examinations than fifth graders who received low-quality care. This could be due to other socio-economic factors that led to some children obtaining better pre-K care than others. If the state provided quality care to all, that would negate some of those economic gaps.
What are the costs associated with universal pre-school? The Rand Institute conducted a study in 2005 of a universal pre-K system proposed in California. Rand said that while the potential system could have cost the state $4,339 per child, the return on that investment could be between $8,477 and $18,257 per child. California would see the return through reduced welfare need in adulthood, lower crime, increased health. Rand also said such academic programs could be framed as economic development, given benefits it provides toward an educated workforce. The Reason Foundation’s assessment stated the Rand Institute’s cost-benefit analysis is flawed. Reason said, using the same criteria as Rand, universal pre-K could have cost California 25-30 cents for every dollar spent. Rand’s study also ignored the cost of setting up a new bureaucracy, teacher shortages, and taxes increases, according to Reason.
Currently, Maine’s Head Start program serves low-income from birth to age five. Qualifying families can also receive tax credits for childcare or DHHS vouchers. You can read more about Maine’s Early Childhood guidelines here. (PDF warning)
“Many charter schools have fostered dramatic innovations in the quality and delivery of cost effective education, and Maine can learn from these experiences,” Cutler said in his campaign release. Charter schools have the potential to be great. Anyone who says they, or any single reform is the cure for our educational system is selling you snake oil. Currently, the average charter school fares no better than the average public school. This can be a misleading statistic. Many charter schools are in their infancy. Is it fair to expect them to do something in perhaps two or three years the public school system hasn’t been able to do in almost 30 (based on when “A Nation At Risk” was released)? A study (PDF warning)conducted by the Fordham Institute and Public Impact states that while the spotlight has been on the results of charter schools, reformers pay little attention to the lack of autonomy most charter schools actually have.
As this study makes plain, though the situation varies greatly by state and by authorizer, charter schools as a whole do not have the autonomy they need to succeed. That represents a major policy failure in American education reform, one that needs to be understood by those who are closely inspecting charter school results, and by policy makers who want this bold experiment to have a fair chance to show what it can do.
Charters need a chance to become established. The movement should not be about completely privatizing education and it should certainly not be about turning a profit(eg. Edison Schools, Mosaica Education). Generally that isn’t the case, though a few bad apples have tainted the charter system’s image. Given the right guidance, over time charters can become an excellent enhancement to our public school system.
There are myths surrounding charter schools. Those have been addressed numerous times on this blog and at The Maine View. If there are any questions as to what a charter school is or isn’t, check there. Also, plenty of other writers have addressed some of these myths as well. Excellent Education for Everyone, the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, the grio, Eduwonk, Charter School Insights (sounds biased, but CSI is highly critical of the movement)and Jay Mathews (specifically KIPP) are just a few of those. On the left, there is much more resistance to charter schools in this state than from the right. There is a wedge in the Democratic Party between those who would advocate reforms such as charters, as is part of President Obama’s ed reform, and those who would reject them completely. This divide seems less evident in Maine, which is not surprising given the lackluster reform climate.
Maine’s only magnet school, Maine School of Science and Mathematics, is one of the state’s best schools. The U.S. News & World Report ranked MSSM 56 out of the country’s 100 best high schools in 2009. “I’ve visited with the students at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, an exciting learning community that is consistently rated one of the top high schools in the nation,” said Cutler. “Let’s find the resources for magnet schools in foreign languages, agriculture, marine sciences and creative arts.”
Similar to charter schools, magnet schools can focus on a specific content area such as math or art. Magnet schools are part of the public system. Teaching methods explored in Magnet schools are often shared with other surrounding schools. The specialization of the schools leads to more qualified teachers as they can receive targeted professional development. Magnet schools boast higher rates of parental and community involvement on average as well. Magnet schools don’t seem to face the same opposition in this state as charters do, though the systems are similar and Magnets have been hit with criticisms used against charter schools.
The high quality of MSSM makes admissions competitive. MSSM requires applicants to present teacher/counselor recommendations, PSAT/SAT scores, multiple essays, a complete academic history, hold an admissions interview, and complete an IQ test. Some college admissions are not as strict. Students do not pay tuition to attend MSSM. The school may raise private funds to “support an educational enhancement fund to enrich the educational experience of students”. MSSM must also raise funds for a scholarship fund in accordance with state law(PDF warning).
The cost to fund a new magnet program is questionable. A student’s per-pupil allotment does not follow them from their previous school. Tuition for the MSSM is paid by the State and Federal government. No local funds are spent educating these students. What would the cost be for new buildings? Could unused buildings be found and renovated? How many new magnets, if any at this time, the state would be able fund? Would current public schools be able to reform as magnets?
In part 2 we will examine Cutler’s plans for teacher compensation, extending the school day/year, skills training, technology, professional development, and schools as community centers.