Gov. Paul LePage’s push to bring virtual charter schools to Maine threatens to increase the already shameful inequities in an education system that favors the privileged. Educated parents will not enroll their children in virtual schools and the gap between the haves and have nots will be widened. Instead of improving education for the children of our state virtual schools will further diminish it.
Children are complex beings who need consistent, attentive care if they are to develop into adults able to successfully assume positions of responsibility both within the family and the world of work. Schools — together with families, social service agencies, the medical establishment, and for some religious institutions — are a main player in providing this care. The mission of schools includes attending to the intellectual, social, moral, emotional, physical, and vocational development of children. Parents know that schools work hard to provide this care. Those with means make sure their children are provided with the best care available in all these areas. Virtual schools cannot hope to provide the multifaceted education children require and deserve.
Even in the realm of intellectual development virtual schools must necessarily fall very short. We have moved far beyond the notion that the primary work of a teacher is to pour information into the brains of the young. The best teachers organize classroom work to develop the reasoning and thinking skills of children. Since no two children are the same the best teachers strive to meet each student where he or she is. These teachers are able to perform the intricate dance of meeting multiple minds where they are at a given moment before moving them all forward. There is joy for both students and teachers in this dance. Before the Legislature seriously considers replacing this sort of classroom with virtual schools, I encourage them to demand evidence that these schools stimulate intellectual development in the way that a good classroom teacher is able.
We should definitely embrace technology as an important tool available to teachers. In trained hands smart boards, smart tables, laptops, and projectors can help teachers reach students. However we are far from living in a world where such technology can be counted on to replace live experience. If we count on technology to be the primary conduit of learning we are shortchanging our students. Of course we should continue to explore and develop the field of technology in education. However we should not pretend we can now educate the children of our state to a level enjoyed by the privileged in our country by relying on technology to do it.
We do need to have creative conversations about how to improve our schools even in economic hard times. However these conversations need to be sensible, backed by evidence, and focused on leveling the playing field for the children of this state. The aim of these conversations should be changing the system so children living in wealthy towns do not enjoy a better level of education than those in the majority of towns in Maine. All children in Maine deserve schools that attend to their social, emotional, moral, intellectual, physical, and vocational development. The work of government lies in making sure they get these schools.
Kathreen Harrison is a longtime educator with a strong interest in school reform. She is currently a World Language teacher in RSU 13, but over the course of almost 30 years has worked in 10 schools in capacities ranging from classroom teacher to gifted and talented teacher to island curriculum adviser. She holds a masters degree from Bank Street School of Education and a bachelors degree from Harvard College. She lives in Camden.