Inherent Contradictions: Governor-elect LePage interviewed by Eighth-graders

Tea-leaf readers looking for augury of what, specifically, lies ahead for Maine state educational policy may be able to glean some signals from yesterday’s interview of Governor-elect LePage by Portland eighth-graders.

First, as Superintendent Morse’s name seems to be on several speculative short lists of likely candidates for the next Commissioner of Education, it’s tempting to read significance into the Governor’s agreeing to appear within his district.

Certainly, Morse’s own comment on the visit - "When experts talk about authentic learning, this is it. I think the kids connected with (LePage) on a very personal level today." - might be taken as meaningfully circumspect to the point of politics.

Showing that he fully understands the populist risks of getting off on the wrong foot in front of an audience of school children, LePage opened with a safe, if slightly defensive, gambit.

"I'm not looking to cut education, I'm looking to reform education. I believe very strongly that schools in Maine need to be brought up to the 21st century."

As unobjectionable as this stated ambition is on its face, when employed by policy makers the subtext of this ‘up to the 21st century’ formulation is generally understood to reinforce a need to counter prevalent localized retardations stemming from sentimental attachment to an anachronistic ‘status quo’ and its counterpart, an imminently more dire shortfall of post-educational economic opportunity.

To express this, a speaker need identify neither an implicit problem nor any explicit solution. Rather, the sufficient purpose in invoking the decade-old millennium is the declaration of present educational inadequacy. This opens the door to warm directly to almost any particular interest in benevolent educational renovation.

Over the course of his campaign, the Governor-elect has made it plain that his portfolio of recommended reforms will include additional state support for charter schools, vouchers for private education, and increased opportunities for homeschooling.

How to implement such additional publicly-funded private systems of education within the Governor-elect’s larger agenda of consolidation and shrinking state government remains as yet unexplained.

In place of such a plan, so far LePage seems content merely to amplify an evident conviction that public education is, at present, inadequate if not indeed irreparable.

As evidence, on the campaign trail, LePage frequently thundered that Maine schools ranked “in the bottom third nationally in educational achievement,” despite the substantial evidence indicating otherwise. When asked for the basis of this assertion, his campaign staff offered only that “that is what the Mayor believes.”

The Governor-elect also believes that the best remedy is offering students more choices and additional opportunity. Both of these concepts are plainly aligned with an ascendant mood of anti-communitarian decentralization in a dominant sector of wider electorate.

"I believe charter schools can specialize in a way that public schools can't," the Governor told Portland’s eight-graders, without explaining which specializations he believed them incapable. He also offered no explanation why public schools shouldn’t themselves be relieved of any such general impediments..

In the face of LePage’s expressed agenda of austerity and antipathy towards teachers’ unions which he holds to be obstacles to reform, the Governor-elect continues to voice his support for teachers and what he compactly refers to as “putting the savings in the classroom," a phrase that's tense with inherent contradictions.

If there are to be innovative opportunities ahead in public education, LePage apparently doesn’t expect them to be initiated, implemented, or evaluated through any additional educational leadership by school administrators.

"I would like to see more consolidation and less superintendents," LePage - a manager himself - said. "Teachers are going to have to come to the place where they understand that we're all going to have to do more with less. "But I'll protect a teacher over an administrator any day."