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Could Maine’s Turnaround be a Harbinger for our Nation

January 10, 2019

I worked for six years in Western Maine from 1977-1983: three as a HS Principal and three more as Superintendent. At that time, I was impressed with the leadership at the State level. The Commissioner was peripatetic, visiting schools and school districts, giving countless speeches and writing op ed pieces promoting the importance of public schools, and hiring bright people to support him even though his staff was being diminished on an annual basis by an increasingly fiscally conservative legislature.

Since leaving Maine I’ve followed their state politics from afar. I noted that they elected decidedly moderate and independent individuals to lead and represent their State, often rejecting either party by electing independents. Angus King embodied their politics in the 90s and early 2000s. But then the wheels came off when their wasn’t a viable independent-moderate candidate and the voters “chose” GOP candidate and Tea Party darling Paul LePage as Governor. I put the word “chose” in quotes because he won both elections when moderate-to-liberal voters split between two candidates paving the way for LePage to win with 38% of the vote in the first election and less than a majority the second time. Like our current President, Mr. LePage appeals to libertarians and other anti-government minded voters and, like our current President, Mr. LePage holds public schools in contempt. Consequently, like our current President. the Maine Governor appointed an education leader who loathed public schools. Here’s the way Diane Ravitch described his appointee to Commissioner: “Paul LePage appointed a homeschooling parent as Commissioner of Education. He made racist remarks. He followed Jeb Bush as his idol.” 

But now, after eight years of “leadership” by the GOP, the voters elected Janet Mills to office and, as Ms. Ravitch notes in her blog post yesterday, change is afoot. Ms. Mills has chosen Pender Makin, Brunswick’s Assistant Superintendent to be Commissioner, and Ms. Makin appears to be the polar opposite of Mr. LePage’s appointee. In addition to being a public school graduate and public school teacher and administrator, she has a stellar resume:

Ms. Makin has been on Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group since 2014, and co-founded the Collaborative for Perpetual Innovation, a technical assistance, professional development, and consulting company for people in the education field. She has served on legislative work panels that aim to enhance educational opportunities for Maine students and promote the work of the state’s public schools.

The Maine Principal’s Association named her the state’s principal of the year for 2013-2014, and Makin also earned the MTV Local Hero and Milken Educator awards.

Better yet, from my perspective, she appears to have the right priorities:

Makin said her top priority as Maine’s next education commissioner will be to rebuild trust in the department.

“There’s been a revolving door of short-term commissioner posts, and the constituents – the schools, the superintendents and the districts – at this point have no faith and no trust that the existing structure is able to meet our needs,” she said.

There is also a need to rebuild trust in public education among all Mainers, Makin added.

Equity of access for all the state’s students to the best education possible is another objective. “We have a growing divide between children who are living in poverty and children who are quite privileged,” and there’s a difference between schools in big cities, the suburbs, and remote rural districts, Makin said.

Makin said she also wants to tackle school safety as proactively as possible.

“I would emphasize social, emotional, behavioral mental health supports (and) screenings,” she said. “Attention to those things is going to make us safer than any type of equipment ever will.”

WOW! Imagine that! A commissioner who wants to build public support and trust for public schools, cares about those who are economically deprived, and wants to invest in “social, emotional, behavioral mental health supports” instead of “equipment“. And Ms. Makin sees Maine as a potential national leader:

“I see Maine as being in a prime position to be influencing national education policy, rather than reactively responding to every little whim that’s happening (at the federal level),” Makin said.

“We have the most unique demographics, we have innovative people in our classrooms all across the state,” she added, plus “a lot of passion and determination, hard work, and all the things that make Maine a real leader educationally. I feel that we maybe have squandered every opportunity to highlight that at the national level.”

Makin also said she sees Maine striving to achieve a world-class education for its students and pushing back against federal policies with which it doesn’t agree, instead of “absorbing blindly whatever gets handed down to us.”

She recalled implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” initiative in 2001, which launched a period of externally driven policies that created a culture of fear-driven accountability. Non-educators were telling educators how to teach, she said, and using sometimes punitive methods to try to bring about success.

There are many Pender Makin’s in the pipeline. Vermont’s and New Hampshire’s former state leaders are cut from the same cloth and there are, I am certain, other state level leaders who could lead public schools out of the “culture of fear-driven accountability” if they were given the chance. But as long as Democrats ascribe to the neoliberal reform agenda we will witness the likes of Arne Duncan and John King being tapped to lead at the national level and testing will continue. I hope that Ms. Makin is successful in leading her state and that Maine IS the template for the future.

As those of us who value public schools look at the Democrat candidates for 2020 their position on “reform” should be a litmus test. If we get another six years of test-and-punish it will mean two full decades of carrots-and-sticks. Ugh!

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