Maine needs more transparency in its education system

By Matthew Gagnon

Last week, I testified in front of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee of the Legislature on four bills that intend to introduce more transparency into Maine’s educational system, and empower parents to know more about their children’s education. 

Interestingly enough, in the middle of my testimony a loud explosion was heard outside the Burton M. Cross Building, bringing my testimony to a halt for a few minutes. I and others thought it may be a car crash, but apparently, a lithium-ion battery in a cordless drill had failed and spontaneously combusted, causing an explosion, and then later a second one. 

I’m not sure if that event taking place as I was speaking made what I was saying more memorable, or less memorable, but either way I think these bills and the notion of transparency in public education are important enough to talk about in this column. 

Let’s start here: public schools are, by their very definition, public. That means they are meant to be universally accessible to all people in a community, and in the state. Because of that, they serve a wildly diverse population of people that have radically different sets of values, ethnic backgrounds, religions and life experiences. 

For those who access public education, which is most of us, choice is not really part of the calculus. Parents do not typically “shop” for schools, seeking to find one that has a curriculum that matches the values, subjects and perspective that they want for their children. For those who send their children to public schools, they simply live in a community, and so they send that child to the school in their community. 

That broad and very divergent population in our public schools means that what is taught, and how it is taught may end up being radically different than what many parents want for their children.

Were I given a choice, for instance, I would be very interested in sending my children to a school that uses the “classical education” model. These schools have a heavy focus on academics around art, literature, and language, with an emphasis on the foundational texts of western civilization. Students in these schools study literature and mathematics, history and the sciences, the fine arts, and even Latin. 

In the end, as I told lawmakers, I want school to open my children’s mind to the wondrous language of mathematics, and the awesome power of scientific discovery. I want them to learn civics and citizenship, be exposed to history and gain an appreciation for great works of literature. What I don’t want are hyperpoliticized, socially manipulative lessons and material, or agenda-driven activist nonsense masquerading as education. 

Unfortunately that is often what parents are forced to endure, simply because they are not afforded a choice and send their children to the local school. Worse, we don’t often know what’s actually being taught to our children, even if we are highly engaged parents. 

This became abundantly clear to me during the COVID-19 pandemic when my wife and I, like all parents in the state, began to become more involved with our children’s schoolwork than we had typically been before. Suddenly I was listening to and helping to administer lessons, checking work, and listening in on class meetings. I came to learn just how much I did not know about my children’s educational life, and some of what I saw and heard was quite surprising to me.

Things as simple as reading lists in a high school AP English course became concerning to me. Absent were works of Homer, Plato, Charles Dickens, John Milton, or William Shakespeare and present were more than a dozen contemporary novels about politically charged social justice issues. 

Learning about the absence of some of the great works of literature that I wanted my oldest son to read was critically important to me, and allowed me as a father to push him to independently read books he just wasn’t being asked to read otherwise. 

That is the power of transparency, and why it is necessary in any kind of public institution that serves such a broad population. Publicly posting curriculum and learning materials, for instance, allows constructive engagement by parents with the schools regarding that curriculum, but also with their own children too. 

Knowing what is (and is not) being taught should be a basic expectation of the public education system in Maine. Without more stringent transparency requirements, it becomes impossible for parents to hold educators and administrators accountable for the quality of the education their children are receiving, or judge whether or not the types of lessons they are receiving are promoting the type of education parents want for their children. Seeking that transparency should not be controversial at all.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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