Weekly Radio Address: Alfond says "We will never stop fighting for our students and our teachers"

Posted: August 03, 2013 | Front Page, Senator Alfond, Weekly Radio Address

Weekly Radio Address: Senate President Justin Alfond


Good Morning. This is Senate President Justin Alfond. We are just weeks away from starting a new school year and the topic of education has once again made the headlines—unfortunately, under a veil of controversy.


Earlier this week, the Florida Education Commissioner, who was a keynote speaker at Governor LePage’s education conference, was forced to resign because of allegations that he cheated the school grading system by changing the letter grade of a charter school.


He changed the letter grades for political patronage…because the school was run by a major Republican donor.


He cheated, as a political quid pro quo.


This man, Tony Bennett, has been hailed as a mentor to the LePage administration and an architect of LePage’s A to F school grading system. A system that was intended to bring accountability to schools and teachers. And with the swoop of one act, Bennet undermined the very underpinnings of his system by changing a charter school’s grade from a “C” to an “A”.


What does this all mean?


Well, it means that school grading systems like the ones implemented by Tony Bennett and the one implemented by Governor LePage don’t amount to much.


We already knew that the grades reflected such arbitrary and incomplete data that it wasn’t truly an indicator of school or student performance. We also knew that the grading system was implemented in a secretive process without input from parents, teachers, students, or administrators.


And now, we know, the pre-determined criteria does not matter because if the architects of these letter grades don’t like the grade that a certain school received, it can be changed.


Certainly, Florida is not Maine–but it is a reminder of what can happen if we move too quickly, if we allow politics to play a part in education, or if we rely on simplistic assessments for our educators and our schools.


As the former chair of the Education committee, and a long time advocate of education, I believe that education is, in fact, the best equalizer we have, it provides opportunities that every student in Maine deserves.


Certainly, I agree that we must improve our schools.


Governor LePage and Commissioner Bowen like to say that lawmakers, unions and others don’t want to innovate we just want the status quo. While this is great political rhetoric, it’s just not reality.


The reality is that students, teachers, administrators and our local communities are putting students at the center of their learning, innovating and using technology, and establishing teacher accountability measures to ensure that we have the best teachers in the classroom. But we should approach that improvement not by some punitive measurement but instead by providing the tools needed to make the classroom stronger.  And let’s not forget that we need to continue providing the financial and professional development resources to provide those tools and support these efforts.


We can all say that we’re “putting students first” but the question is, what are we really doing to ensure that the best interest of our students is put ahead of any other interest.


To me, that is what was at stake earlier this week with the controversy that surrounded Baxter Academy–a public charter school located in my hometown of Portland.


Baxter Academy, one of our state’s first charter schools, held, as its first well publicized public event, a partnership with the conservative fringe group, the Maine Heritage Policy Center.


As a public charter school, it is inexcusable that they chose to use taxpayer dollars to partner with such a political fringe organization. The school’s mission is to provide students a curriculum focused on a STEM education–a school focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics–not a political training camp.


To be clear, while I am an ardent supporter of public education, I understand and accept that charter schools are the law in Maine. But I have also said that we should not rush, we must plan and be thoughtful and make sure that each step of the way we are doing what is best to ensure a quality education for Maine students at all schools.


There are public, private, and charter schools that are doing just that. And we should be proud of those schools and learn from them.


Just yesterday, I had the honor to speak to Goodwill Hinkley’s first graduating class. And yesterday’s graduation marked a milestone in this charter school’s success. This remarkable, graduating class of ten students dedicated to the natural sciences is evidence that there are multiple educational partnerships for the students of Maine.


Today, Maine students have many options. Maine’s educational partnerships include Jobs for Maine Graduates, Learning Works, the Bridge Program, five approved charters and so much more. Education policy is shifting and policy makers are part of the solution.


This session, I am proud of the work we did to provide our public schools with the financial resources they need. We restored deep education cuts that were proposed by Governor LePage and took it a step further by providing an additional $35 million for public education. Just as important, we created a plan and a path for the state to meet its commitment to fund education at 55 percent, per the will of the voters.


Additionally, we sent a strong signal to young parents and future parents by prioritizing funding for Headstart.  We know that learning doesn’t begin at Kindergarten–we must begin earlier.


We have more work to do, and we will never stop fighting for our students and our teachers–the heroes who dedicate themselves to making our schools stronger, safer, and the best learning environment for our children. We will support them, not shame them, and we will all work together to make sure our students excel today and are prepared for their future.


Thank you for listening. This is Senate President Justin Alfond. Have a great weekend.