The MEA looks ahead…


The Maine Education Association took its fair share of lumps (and then some) this past election season.

The union backed the wrong horse in the gubernatorial race, dropping more than a half-million dollars on ads supporting its candidate, Libby Mitchell, who barely won 19 percent of the vote.  For this, and for its steadfast opposition to any significant reform of Maine schools, the union was bludgeoned repeatedly by Mitchell’s opponents, including Eliot Cutler, who raked the MEA over the coals in op-eds and who accused Mitchell and the union of forming an “unholy alliance.” Paul LePage, who ultimately prevailed in the race, likewise criticized the “union bosses” in Augusta for being more focused on the interests of the adults in Maine schools than the interests of the kids.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the MEA went into a defensive crouch, assailing the “Tea Party enthusiasts [who] helped carry LePage to victory,” and who, they claimed, were funded by “conservatives and corporate leaders” whose goals included “lower corporate taxes, fewer regulations, business approaches applied to education, and an educational system geared towards producing workers for their businesses.” Cutler voters, the MEA claimed, were “moderates and independents,” who “support public education, but are beginning to listen to the criticism from the conservative anti-public school propaganda machine.”

The MEA evidently got a little heat for essentially claiming that the 81 percent of voters (including, one suspects, many of its own members) who didn’t vote for Libby Mitchell were either greedy and evil conservatives (are there any other kind?) or clueless independents easily fooled by the conservative “propaganda machine.” A few days after the MEA’s accusatory election results web posting, MEA President Chris Galgay struck a more conciliatory tone, defending the MEA’s endorsement of Mitchell and promising that he was “ready and willing to work with Governor LePage and the new legislature to improve our schools.”

Interestingly, Galgay took the additional step of promising to “offer our ideas to improve our pre-K-12 schools, Community College System, and University of Maine System.” That was the theme of MEA Executive Director Mark Gray’s post, which called on the union to “begin promoting our own ideas for change.” “The status quo is viewed as falling farther and farther behind, and any organization that is seen as defending business as usual is quickly labeled an obstacle to progress,” Gray wrote. “It is no longer good enough to simply defeat bad ideas. In this new reality, we must organize ourselves and our allies to advocate for the changes that should be made to make every public school in Maine a ‘Great Public School’.”

If the union follows the advice of Galgay and Gray, it would represent a big change in direction for the union. In my experience, the only legislation ever offered by the MEA involves, in some way, an expansion of union power and influence. Rarely, if ever, does the union put forward school reform legislation that isn’t in some way self-serving. Will that change, given the “new reality” the union finds itself confronting?

Perhaps not. In yet another web posting (none are dated, so it is hard to know when they are put online), the union laid out the “Four BIG Issues” it sees on the horizon for the upcoming legislative session. Do these big issues include improving student outcomes and increasing accountability across the entire K-12 system? No. Do they include implementing promising reform practices already proven to be successful in other states? No.

The “Four BIG Issues” that will be “on the table” this coming legislative session are preserving and increasing school funding levels, protecting teacher pensions, preserving teacher health insurance benefits, and opposing what the MEA predicts will be “an avalanche of conservative and anti-public education ‘reforms’ and cost-saving ideas,” which will come, they claim, “from the likes of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”

Well, thanks for the plug, and thanks for letting the world know that despite all the happy talk about moving beyond the “status quo” and working to improve Maine schools, the union remains dedicated, first and foremost, in its own self-interest and the interests of the adults in represents.

In the entire “Four BIG Issues” post, the word “student” occurs only once, and only then in reference to the reforms the union is devoted to opposing. There is no mention of student outcomes, no mention of higher education degree attainment, no mention of improving upon Maine’s 76 percent high school graduation rate. So much for working to be part of the solution rather than “an obstacle to progress.”

It is fascinating, I have to say, that the union struggled a little with how to respond to its Election Day drubbing, and even more interesting that for a moment, but only for a moment, it seems, it toyed with the idea of becoming a voice for real reform the way teachers’ union elsewhere (though usually AFT affiliates) have.

It looks as though it has since thought twice about the idea, but we’ll see in a few weeks, when a new governor and a new legislature convene in Augusta and go to work.

Which MEA will be there to greet them?