Education issues to take center stage in Governor’s race?

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I want to take a quick time-out from my ongoing analysis of Maine’s Race to the Top application in order to discuss a fiery op-ed from gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, which was recently published by the Bangor Daily News.

In the piece, Cutler comes out swinging at Maine Education Association, which, to the surprise of precisely no one, recently endorsed Libby Mitchell for governor.

“At a time when we need to be focused on growing the economic pie in Maine so that our kids will have a future here,” Cutler writes, “the MEA’s only concern is how to grab for themselves an even bigger slice of a pie that already is much too small.”  “Without Libby Mitchell at the helm in Augusta for much of the last 30 years,” he continues, “the MEA never could have succeeded in driving the costs of public education in Maine higher and higher, blocking public charter schools, preserving tenure and lock step salary increases for teachers and sidetracking other needed public education reforms — all while student enrollments and performance have been falling.”


Cutler, a former Democrat,  has made education reform a top issue and clearly intends to use it as a way to distinguish himself from Mitchell.  With Republican Paul LePage pushing school choice and charter schools in his own campaign, it is beginning to appear as though education issues may be a major part of the gubernatorial debate to come.

This is newsworthy because when the economy is lousy, as it is today, education issues tend to get moved to campaign back burners. One need only look at the 2008 presidential race for an example.  In the run-up to that election, the Gates and Broad Foundations spent millions on an initiative known as “Ed in ’08,” the intent of which was to ensure that eduction reform became a top election-year issue. After the collapse of the stock market that fall, though, nobody wanted to hear about education issues and there was little real debate on the subject for the remainder of the presidential race.

Here in Maine, though, education reform may well become a major issue this fall. Ongoing budget shortfalls will likely result in further cuts to state funding for schools, which means that more discussion about how to contain education costs is on the way. The destiny of the state’s Race to the Top application will likely be known by early September, and will doubtless become fodder for the fall campaigns as well.

Then there is the interesting geography of the governor’s race, with Democrat Libby Mitchell, the living embodiment of the establishment status-quo, squaring off against Cutler and LePage, both of whom are running campaigns with a strong focus on bringing dramatic change to the very system of K-12 education that Mitchell had no small hand in creating.

If Cutler’s op-ed is any indication, it looks to be an interesting campaign season ahead!