The state Department of Education has removed from its website an educational video aimed at kindergarteners that celebrated transgender identity and same-sex relationships after it was featured in a Republican TV ad targeting Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
The department and Mills agreed that the teacher-developed lesson plan entitled “Freedom Holidays” – one of about 400 optional instruction videos created during the COVID-19 pandemic to help teachers engage remote learners – was not appropriate for kindergarten students.
“The governor was not aware of the lesson, but she understands the concerns expressed about the age appropriateness, and agrees with the Department of Education’s decision to remove the lesson,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said on Wednesday, the day the ad began running.
Mills believes that decisions about what is taught in a classroom should be made by parents, community members, teachers and local elected school boards, Crete said, noting Maine’s longstanding tradition of local control.
“She will continue to empower parents and elected school boards to make decisions about their kids’ educations,” Crete said, but concluded by noting that Mills “will continue to respect LGBTQ+ people as valued members of the Maine community.”
The Maine Department of Education would not specify why it could not recommend the “Freedom Holidays” lesson plan for kindergarten instruction. Spokesman Marcus Mrowka said the video “should have received further review by a DOE specialist” before it was posted online.
He would not say if other online lesson plans included in the MOOSE program – Maine Online Opportunities for Sustained Education – had been screened by the department before being posted on the publicly accessible professional development platform.
MOOSE is not a state-mandated curriculum, Mrowka noted. No teacher or school district was required to use the Freedom Holidays lesson plan. MOOSE is made up of free, project-based lesson plans created by Maine teachers for optional use by other Maine teachers in their classrooms, he said.
But the online hub is undergoing a previously scheduled review by department staff, he said. It is part of a plan to update the lesson plans created in the first year of the pandemic and to consider new material created by teachers for the coming school year.
The kindergarten teacher who created the video was paid a $1,000 stipend for her work, Mrowka said.
The “Freedom Holidays” video is the subject of the Republicans’ first TV ad of the state’s governor’s race, which began airing Wednesday on state TV and radio stations. The one-minute ad is a culture-war hit piece that criticizes the Mills administration for using tax dollars to fund pro-LGBTQ lesson plans.
The one-minute ad accuses Mills of spending $2.8 million to fund questionable instructional videos as a part of the MOOSE program. It singles out the Freedom Holidays video as an example of “radical school lessons” being funded with Maine tax dollars.
“Is this really what our kids should be learning in kindergarten instead of math, science and reading?” the narrator asks after a clip from “Freedom Holidays” is played. “Janet Mills’ radical agenda is just wrong for our kids and for Maine.”
Produced by a Virginia company, the ad buy – the first of at least $4 million the Maine Republican Party plans to run – cost about $94,000, campaign finance records show. Earlier this month, the Democratic Governors Association announced a $5 million TV campaign.
The large fundraising totals so far – Mills has raised $2.7 million to date and former Gov. Paul LePage has raised $1.3 million – suggest this showdown between an incumbent Democrat and a two-term Republican could become the most expensive governor’s race in Maine history.
The “radical lessons” ad message appeals to the socially conservative Republican base that took center stage at the Republican Party Convention in Augusta this month. Republican delegates voted from the floor to add anti-LGBTQ language to the platform.
Maine Republican Party leaders have publicly criticized Democrats for trying to distract Maine voters from pocketbook issues by focusing on emotional issues like abortion, but this ad demonstrates that the Maine GOP is keen to remind voters of the culture wars playing out at school board meetings across the nation.
The state Democratic Party picked up on that contradiction in its response to the ad on Wednesday.
“The Maine GOP knows they can’t run on Paul LePage’s failed record, so they are resorting to following a national playbook that seeks to distract, distort and divide,” party Chairman Drew Gattine said. “Maine people know better than to believe the Maine GOP’s lies.”
Gattine called Mills a champion for Maine’s tradition of local control for children, teachers, schools and Maine families. Under her leadership, Maine has fully funded the state’s share of public education, raised teacher salaries and expanded learning opportunities, Gattine said.
But that didn’t deter Republicans from banging on the culture war drums even louder on Wednesday.
At one point, the video talks about people who love in ways that society hasn’t always allowed, referring to same-sex relationships. Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said such language could confuse children and make them more susceptible to pedophiles.
“I’m concerned about the mixed messages that are obvious to anyone who has had kids: we teach them about ‘stranger danger’ and that their bodies are their own,” Kouzounas said. “But this video talks about ‘people who love in ways that society hasn’t always allowed.’ “