Maine families losing trust, voice in public education institutions
Recent stories across Maine recount parents passionately speaking out against a lack of accountability in their local districts. These events show a desperate yearning among the public for more choice and transparency from the education system.
Two members of the Oxford Hills school board who reside in Paris are facing recall elections for their conduct related to a proposed district-wide gender identity policy. Among other concerning passages, it decrees that “students shall be addressed by school staff… and other students by the name and pronoun they request.” It is unclear how this speech code would be enforced.
By stating that “parent notification shall be contingent on student approval,” the policy would require school staff to withhold information from parents about the child’s mental health and treatment. Many iterations of this policy found across Maine outline that staff such as school guidance counselors are not required to disclose the details of a student’s gender identity plan to the student’s parents. In Oxford Hills, this was justified in the policy by the fact that staff need only comply with parents’ requests made under “a legitimate educational interest.”
Oxford Hills parents organized and mounted fierce opposition to the proposed policy at several school board meetings, successfully delaying it earlier this month.
Add to it that new state Department of Education rules allow state-licensed clinical social workers to diagnose and recommend treatment related to a student’s gender identity plan, potentially including hormone treatments or surgery. Ultimately, parents may face legal ramifications if they object to their child’s gender identity plan.
On Friday, The Maine Wire reported shocking testimony from a mom in Damariscotta saying that a school social worker provided her daughter with a chest binder, a device used by females in beginning to transition gender, and encouraged the child to keep it secret from her parents.
A mom in Hermon has been speaking out over a weeks-long battle with her local school district to retrieve information, including a policy regarding judging sexualized materials in books available to children in the school library. She has complained about the lack of communication and transparency from district officials in responding to her Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) requests. At one point, she was quoted $27,000 from the district to complete her requests.
As reported by Shawn McBreairty, during a recent Zoom meeting, a health teacher in Gorham public schools complained about the level of FOAA requests from the community, saying that the environment has “made us not be able to send emails out for fear of those emails being requested.” Another attendee recommended school officials talk on the phone instead of email to avoid creating a public record which could be requested under FOAA.
Vicki Wallack, with the Maine School Management Association, an organization which supports school districts, also sits on the state’s Right-To-Know Advisory Board, tasked with advancing government transparency. In a November meeting, she called requests dealing with school policies around sex and gender “hate speech.” Is this the view of someone dedicated to the public’s right to know?
Maine Policy Institute has several FOAA requests with the Mills Administration which have been open for more than a year, without fulfillment or follow-up.
These stories show the need to not only remove schools as an appropriate setting to disseminate obscene materials to minors, but also to strengthen FOAA to ensure that parents’ requests are fulfilled in good faith and in a timely manner. This is the time to beef up public records laws, not weaken them as Ms. Wallack, several school boards, and the Mills Administration would prefer.
While the specifics of each event differ, they all show mounting frustration among Maine parents that they are losing control of their children’s education and losing voice in their local institutions.
Lawmakers may pursue stronger public Freedom of Access by requiring agencies to fulfill requests within a reasonable timeframe, or obtain a waiver from the Public Access Ombudsman if they are not able to. Lawmakers may also require requests for inter-governmental communications to be filed with the Office of Information Technology (OIT) instead of the agency whose staff will be subject to the request. This could streamline queries and improve responsiveness, while also limiting the effect of bureaucrats’ personal bias while working to fulfill requests.
Once parents have full transparency of the educational system they fund, lawmakers should ensure every student has as many educational options as possible available to them. Sadly, today’s system is built on limiting those options for all but the wealthiest families. To relieve this issue, Maine must lower barriers to school choice by allowing students to transfer to any nearby district with space, attend a specialized virtual or charter school, or opt to direct their share of education dollars to qualified providers of their choosing.
Only then, with adequate transparency for parents and choices for students, will the balance of power between Mainers and their public institutions be even. Perhaps then will government schools better serve the next generation.