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Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 12:39 pm

If there’s one Maine institution Gov. Paul LePage hates more than the state’s whiny newspapers, it’s public schools. And for good reason.

A Harvard University study released last year found Maine was 40th of 41 states rated for student improvement. We beat Uganda, which Harvard apparently considers a U.S. state.

The Maine Department of Education admits math and reading scores for third- through eighth-graders have been as flat as the TV screens kids are watching instead of doing homework.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Maine scored a D+ in 2012 for preparing new teachers for the classroom. That didn’t even include training them to shoot guns.

Data from the University of Maine System shows 12 percent of the state’s high school graduates needed remedial programs before they could do college work. Half the high school students the Maine Community College System accepted from within the state weren’t ready for freshman classes. When LePage applied to college, he had much the same problem.

Maine got below-average grades for improving teacher quality from a national reform group called StudentsFirst. Although, all our teachers know enough to put spaces between words.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress found Maine fourth- and eighth-graders scored barely above average on its vocabulary test, even though the state spends considerably more per student annually than the national average. Too much of that must be going to putting spaces between words and not enough to the words.

Last year, the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s assessment found only 35 percent of Maine schools were making adequate progress toward meeting the law’s goals. Just 5 percent of Americans understand what those goals are, and most of them think they’re irrelevant to measuring student achievement or else a plot to get rid of that nasty 10th-grade English teacher that gave them a C-.

“In fact,” said the governor at a January news conference, “our school systems are failing.” He claimed this was because, “we don’t care about our kids.”

That could be true. I certainly don’t care about his kids. And when it comes to yours, I’m ambivalent.

In a speech last year, LePage was even blunter: “If you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck. You can go to public school.”

As is frequently the case, the governor’s statements were so impolitic as to allow his opponents – chiefly the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union – to divert debate from the point he was trying to make to the way he attempted to make it. The MEA is also adept at finding studies that contradict those LePage cites. In part this is because accurately measuring success in education is like attempting to measure sexual satisfaction. There can be considerable divergence of opinion even among those most intimately associated with the process.

(Hey, vocabulary testers, how about that last sentence for using big words to talk dirty without getting caught by the editor. Hard to believe I only got a C-. Not that I’m still bitter.)

Much of what LePage has to say about education can be dismissed as blather (for instance, his plan to grade every Maine school on an A-through-F scale), but that shouldn’t obscure his central points: The state’s schools are over-regulated and under-responsive to students’ future needs. That isn’t necessarily the fault of teachers, administrators or even unions. To a large extent, it’s the result of the pernicious (did you catch that hot-shot word, Mr. C. Minus Teacher?) intrusion of the federal bureaucracy into what ought to be a state – or, better yet, a local – matter.

School systems are forced by rules from Washington to mold the curriculum mostly to prepare students for taking various national tests. These tests have almost nothing to do with determining whether anybody is learning anything useful. Instead, they attempt to measure progress toward the goals of whatever arbitrary theory of learning is in vogue this year, while continuing to trample over whatever kids might actually want to study or, perish the thought, what their parents might want to pay for.

To some extent, charter schools attempt to reverse this trend, and LePage is to be commended for advancing that cause, albeit by blustering and ranting in generally unproductive ways. But real progress will come only when municipalities can make more of their own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Increasing the involvement of taxpayer-parents (as well as taxpayer-non-parents) in setting standards and budgets would go a long way toward curing some of the ills that beset public education.

It’s not that you and your neighbors won’t make mistakes every bit as ludicrous as No Child Left Behind. It’s just that the only people who’ll have to suffer for them will be your own kids.

Class dismissed. Essays on this subject can be emailed to No extra credit for agreeing with me.

Welcome to the discussion.