As any high school civics student would tell you, checks and balances are integral to our system of government. The framers of the United States Constitution understood that they are needed to prevent any one branch of government from gaining too much power and also to promote cooperation among the branches. Our country’s constitution — and by extension our state’s — was crafted as a response to tyranny, specifically that of the English king.
We have no king in Maine. But we do have a chief executive who disdains the checks and balances meant to protect the people from overreach of power. We saw it recently with his stance on a commissioner for the state Department of Education.
“I will be the commissioner,” Gov. Paul LePage declared at a breakfast gathering of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
The governor later elaborated on his outrageous proclamation. It became clear that he intended to serve as a kind of figurehead commissioner — one who would sign paperwork as necessary for the Department of Education and would apparently also appear before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, which I co-chair, when it needs information from the administrative branch.
This is part of a larger scheme to evade checks and balances. The governor had pulled his nomination of William Beardsley, who is now acting commissioner. Beardsley will stay in his post until the six-month term expires, and the governor will then make him deputy commissioner — all to avoid the oversight that the Legislature would bring to the nomination and confirmation process.
When government functions as intended, lawmakers vet a governor’s nominee on behalf of the people of Maine. Here, the Education Committee would hold a hearing to engage in a transparent and substantive policy discussion with the nominee before the Senate decides whether to confirm the nomination.
Instead, the governor is installing a shadow commissioner. (Or two, if you count his own self-assigned duties of document signing and committee appearances.)
Maine students deserve better. So do their parents, educators, schools and communities. They all deserve an honest-to-gosh commissioner, a full-time one who has the endorsement of the people’s representatives.
It’s not just that the state’s top education official leads public education efforts for some 185,000 students, 15,000 teachers and 164 school units throughout Maine. This is a particularly dynamic time in education policy, one that requires steady leadership at the helm.
Last year, President Barack Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act. It redefines the federal government’s role in K-12 education, replaces the No Child Left Behind Act and opens new possibilities to the states and local school districts.
The impact of this new law cannot be overstated. It truly is a sea change in public education policy, one that touches so many aspects of our children’s education. It addresses student progress, teacher evaluation, testing, diplomas and local control to name a few areas of focus.
The Every Student Succeeds Act creates enormous opportunity for Maine to determine how its schools can best prepare its students for academic, career and civic success. The state and school districts will have greater authority and flexibility as the federal government lets go of the top-down approach for which No Child Left Behind was often criticized.
This increased flexibility comes with greater responsibility. School districts in Maine will need guidance from the state Department of Education. It’s no simple thing for schools to determine how to implement this complex 1,061-page law. They should be able to look to the state Department of Education for direction and explanation.
But the hard-working professionals there have been subject to too much flux. Since September 2013, they have had four different leaders, serving in a combination of confirmed full-time commissioner and acting commissioner roles.
Public education in Maine needs leadership now more than ever.
The governor made Beardsley acting commissioner in October, after he served mere hours in a department position to satisfy the state law that requires the position be filled by a department employee. Unless something changes, we can expect the governor’s disregard for checks and balances to continue when he turns Acting Commissioner Beardsley into Deputy Commissioner Beardsley in April.
It’s a poor example of civics to set for the students of Maine.
Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor, is House chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Before serving in the Legislature, she taught at Bangor High School for 30 years.