Top photo: Former Gov. Paul LePage | Beacon
Originally published in the Beacon, https://mainebeacon.com/
It’s no secret that Paul LePage is no fan of public education. As governor he called Maine teachers “a dime a dozen” and told an audience of business people that “if you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck — you can go to the public school.”
LePage has always been upfront about his obsession with privatizing and defunding public schools. He has called for vouchers that would allow for education funding to be diverted to subsidize private religious schools, home schooling and for-profit online education.
As governor, he ignored the 2004 voter-mandated law to fund the state’s share of education at 55% (Gov. Janet Mills has finally honored that commitment) and shifted millions of dollars in costs onto local school districts. The former governor also applauded a recent Supreme Court decision to strike down Maine’s law banning public funding for religious schools, stating that it was “time to let the parents decide their child’s future, not educational bureaucrats.”
The former governor’s fondness for private religious schools is rooted in his own experience attending parochial school in Lewiston, where he claims the combination of strict discipline and corporal punishment made him a better person.
“We don’t have that in public schools. So faith-based schools have a different way of teaching, and it worked for me,” he once said in a radio interview in 2012.
“It wasn’t the religious part of it that was good; it was the brothers being stern and — look at my knuckles — they still show that they were hit a few times,” LePage added.
Rather than addressing the key factors that worsen academic performance — like social and economic conditions, poverty, unequal school funding and lack of early childhood education — LePage and his fellow school privatizers are more interested in putting all of the blame solely on teachers, school boards and administrators for low student achievement. Instead of improving public schools, LePage seeks to punish them by diverting public education money to private schools. This further reduces the amount of funding available for local public schools and disadvantages low-income students and children with disabilities and higher needs. As disability advocates point out, private and religious schools can legally reject students with special needs and voucher programs don’t cover expenses like transportation and other services those students need.
The racist roots of the school choice movement
Having more educational options sounds like a positive thing, but in reality studies show that this doesn’t improve student achievement overall. Instead, it further balkanizes and segregates the student body by allowing more elite schools to cherry pick the most privileged and highest achieving students who have more resources to supplement private school educations. This is no accident.
As Duke University historian Nancy MacLean has documented, the “school choice” movement was a direct reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools in 1954. School vouchers were developed by Southern states to avoid court-ordered racial integration and allow white parents to send their children to private schools known as “segregation academies” that could discriminate based on the color of one’s skin.
Based on extensive archival research, MacLean has exposed how the conservative economist Milton Friedman “taught white supremacists a more sophisticated…court-proof way to preserve Jim Crow” by providing a justification grounded in the free market ideology. Friedman argued that breaking the “government monopoly” over education would promote “competition.”
The school choice movement was later picked up by well-funded conservative think tanks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded bill mill that creates “model legislation” for Republican state legislators. LePage, who was deeply involved with ALEC as governor, described himself as a fan of Friedman and even once declared July 31 to be “Milton Friedman Day” in Maine, citing the economist’s support for “school choice.”
But despite a decades-long corporate-funded effort to undermine public education, polls consistently show Americans broadly support it and overwhelmingly reject school privatization schemes. That’s why school privatizers have been diligently working to erode confidence in public education by demonizing teachers and stoking fear and paranoia about the teaching of LGBTQ content and “critical race theory,” or “CRT,” an academic concept addressing institutional racism that is generally not taught in K-12 schools.
This latest manufactured moral panic can be traced to a right-wing propagandist named Christopher Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute, who launched the war against CRT and supposed “grooming” of students by sexually predatory public school teachers. Rufo uses CRT as a catch-all term to describe any lessons that include studies of race relations and racial equity that make white people uncomfortable. In capitalizing on white racial anxiety in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, Rufo says he purposely uses the term “critical race theory” because it’s the “perfect villain” and comes off as “hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist [and] anti-American” to average white middle-class Americans.
LePage and the bigoted anti-CRT mob
In his campaign appearances, LePage has made it clear that he will continue the war on public education by putting gag rules on teachers and censoring what students can read. As he told an audience last year, “I can’t wait to attack the school system, because man, this critical race theory. They’re taking down statues, burning down buildings, killing Americans.”
Earlier this month LePage echoed calls from the far-right when he said he wanted to remove “pornography” from school — a label anti-public school crusaders have used to describe books that contain LGBTQ subject matter — and hinted at pushing legislation to support efforts by parents to ban books.
“I’ve heard it. I’ve seen one here in Hampden and one down south in Bonny Eagle, where people were threatened to be arrested, thrown out of meetings. That is inappropriate,” he told an audience at Husson University. “So, the governor’s office’s role is to pass legislation that allows school boards to hear from the parents, and the parents and the school board should determine what goes into the libraries.”
LePage is apparently referring to the antics of a far-right agitator named Shawn McBreairty, who has been repeatedly banned from entering a number of schools across the state after spending the past two years harassing teachers and school boards over CRT and books containing LGBTQ subject matter. McBreairty first received national notoriety after receiving a criminal trespass order from SAD 51 schools — which encompasses schools in Cumberland and North Yarmouth — for repeatedly violating district rules.
In 2020, McBreairty became convinced that the school was calling residents of Cumberland “white supremacists” and teaching “critical race theory” after it released a statement denouncing white supremacy and committing to racial equity in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In violation of school rules, McBreairty padlocked a sign to a school fence, disrupted numerous school board meetings and distributed flyers denouncing school officials to Greely High School students. At one point he even put a billboard-sized sign of a school board member’s face on his lawn that he claimed was surrounded by rat traps.
McBreairty cast himself as a free speech martyr in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, implying, falsely, that he was prohibited from attending his daughter’s graduation for battling with the school for holding what he described as “anti-white training.”
After that appearance, McBreairty rocketed to right-wing stardom and became a chapter leader of the “No Left Turn Education,” one of the largest organizations fear mongering about racial equity in schools. The group and its founder have compared educators to Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler and claimed that “black bigotry towards whites” is a “very real problem.” But McBreairty was too much of a loose cannon even for that group. No Left Turn later fired him in 2021 after he pled guilty to improperly influencing a Cumberland school official by threatening to release a recording of the deceased father of a school board member if they didn’t resign.
Since then, McBreairty has been working as the special projects director for former state Rep. Larry Lockman’s white supremacist organization, known as the Maine First Project. Lockman has spent the past 40 years attacking LGBTQ rights and people of color. Lockman, who once wrote a homophobic book titled “The Aids Epidemic: A Citizens’ Guide To Protecting Your Family And Community From The Gay Plague,” regularly promotes white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories and accuses pro-immigrant lawmakers of waging a “war on whites.” LePage has long supported Lockman and his hateful agenda, having endorsed him for state senate and stood beside him during his campaign roll out in 2019.
Most disturbingly, McBreairty and Lockman frequently name individual teachers in their defamatory accusations on conservative radio shows, podcasts, newsletters and on social media. One of McBreairty’s favorite targets is 2022 “Maine Teacher of the Year” Kelsey Stoyanova, an eighth grade teacher at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden. Students have described Stoyanova as passionate about instilling a love of learning and making all students feel valued and accepted.
“In Ms. Stoyanova’s classroom, you feel seen, you feel heard, you feel loved,” former student Roz O’Reilly told the Bangor Daily News.
However, McBreairty, who doesn’t have any children in Hampden schools (or in any K-12 schools), has accused Stoyanova of “hyper-sexualizing” students and promoting CRT because she released a reading list for students that included Black and LGBTQ authors.
Ironically, McBreairty and Maine First Project actually promoted a child sex offender whose transphobic positions they agreed with. Last spring, Maine First Project platformed a self-described “ex-transgender woman” who is a convicted child sex offender and a life time registrant on the sex offender registry.
Fighting back against the anti-teacher witch hunt
Fortunately, McBreairty and Lockman have been generally unsuccessful in taking over school boards, as right-wing cranks who oppose diversity, equity and inclusion have fared poorly in Maine. As one recent poll shows, most parents like their public schools and teachers and support them by wide margins.
However, the fury and fearmongering of a vocal right-wing minority is having a meaningful impact with conservative voters. One recent poll found that while Democratic support for public schools has increased during the pandemic, Republican confidence in public schools has plummeted to an all-time low. Last spring, Maine Republican Party convention delegates even passed McBreairty’s “Don’t Say Gay” resolution to ban CRT and sex education in schools and limit what school staff can say about gender and sexuality.
Free public education is one of our most valuable institutions and a cornerstone of our democracy. Its mission is to provide every young person in the nation with an equitable, inclusive and quality education that fosters a life-long love of learning and gives students the knowledge they need to be active, informed participants in the democratic process. While public education may not completely live up to its ideals, we need to continue working to strengthen and improve it for future generations of young learners.
Our educators pursue teaching not to get rich but because they have a passion to shape young minds. It’s not an easy job, though. It involves providing differentiated instruction for diverse learners, endless paperwork, early mornings and late nights preparing lessons, disciplining students, dealing with bullying and problems at home, and spending money out of one’s own pocket for classroom materials due to lack of funding.
The stress of working through the pandemic along with the constant smears, personal attacks and demonization of their profession is driving good teachers out, with more than a half-million leaving the profession since the beginning of 2020. Although these far-right activists are small in number, they have become very influential in our politics and it’s clear that if LePage is elected governor, he will continue to empower them and legitimize their bigoted grievances.
If you value public education, racial justice, LGBTQ rights and the separation of church and state, sitting back and rolling your eyes at these antics is no longer an option. We need to organize and fight back against this elitist, hateful agenda and send LePage back to Florida in November.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.