School choice, public funding for religious institutions headline LePage education plan

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday unveiled sweeping reforms to the state's education system, including public funding for religious schools and a school choice initiative.

The proposal also includes teacher and administrator evaluations and an expansion of career and technical education. 

LePage made the announcement at the Somerset Career & Technical Center in Skowhegan. The administration said specific bill language would be released over the next few weeks. 

Each of the proposals will be reviewed by the Legislature where lawmakers will encounter competing lobbying interests. One group includes the national organization StudentsFirst, a nonprofit organization founded by former D.C. chancellor of public schools Michelle Rhee.

Rhee gained national media attention for her advocacy of groundbreaking education reforms that often ran counter to the interests of teacher unions. Lobby reports filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices show that StudentsFirst has hired two lobbyists to work this legislative session.   

The LePage administration has dubbed its education initiative "Students First."

LePage and Education Commissioner Steven Bowen acknowledged that the proposals represent significant changes in the state's education system. However, Bowen noted, some of the initiatives run parallel to proposals advanced by the Barack Obama administration, including teacher evaluation and furthering technical education.

However, two of LePage's proposals are not aligned with Obama's initiatives and will likely initiate considerable debate.

It begins with the governor's proposal to remove language prohibiting the use of public education money for private religious schools. Three similar proposals were advanced last year. All failed to gain legislative approval. 

The ensuing debate likely will evoke arguments over the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause. Those who oppose using public funds for religious schools say the clause prohibits government funding for religious establishments. Proponents, meanwhile, read the clause to mean that diverting public funds is constitutional so long as the government doesn't favor religious schools over public schools, or one faith over another. 

The governor's school choice initiative also will be controversial. The state teachers' union, the Maine Education Association, on Wednesday came out swinging against the initiative, saying it jeopardized the viability of rural schools due to the potential of declining enrollment. 

"This proposal pits one school district against the other with serious consequences," MEA President Chris Galgay said in a written statement. "If schools begin losing students to nearby schools, they will likely face closure."

Galgay noted that the governor's school choice initiative didn't require districts to provide transportation to students from other districts. 

Jeremy Lehan, an English teacher at Skowhegan Area High School who attended the governor's news conference, said school choice could force some districts to raise taxes to compete with nearby districts.

"A more likely scenario is that people and programs will be cut if or when children leave districts to attend other schools," Lehan said in a statement. 

Bowen, the education commissioner, disagreed. 

He said "Schools of Choice" schools would set the number of students they would accept for the upcoming school year. If more students apply than there are openings, the schools would hold a lottery to determine which students would be taken. The process, the administration contends, would prevent schools from cherry-picking students.

"We want to allow families to have a say in what the best educational fit is for their children," Bowen said.

The MEA claimed the teacher evaluation proposal would unfairly allow superintendents and principals to favor certain teachers while jettisoning others. 

The administration says the evaluation guidelines aren't yet settled. It added that teachers, administrators and other stakeholders would develop the standards, which would go beyond student test scores and include opportunities for teacher development.

Whatever standards are adopted, the administration wants a program that allows districts to put ineffective teachers on probation if they can't improve their performance over two consecutive school years.

LePage also heralded an initiative requiring school districts with career and technical education centers to align their respective school calendars and make it easier for students to receive credits at their high school and in the Maine Community College System. 

"We need to build an education system around what each student needs," LePage said. "Each student learns in different ways; we need to provide multiple pathways, and CTE plays a significant role in that." 

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the latter proposal has promise. However, he said, he was disappointed that the governor's education roll-out focused mostly on controversial proposals and little on initiatives outlined in a recently developed strategic plan designed to provide guidelines to improve Maine education.

Alfond said LePage's proposal "crushes the momentum" of the plan, Education Evolving, because it alienates and divides the stakeholders who drafted it. 

"Overall, the governor and the commissioner have taken the most divisive parts of the strategic plan and said these are the most important objectives for the state of Maine," Alfond said. "Some of these objectives have been rejected by this Legislature two or three times, including using public funding for private schools." 

He added, "I'm disappointed and shocked that he and the commissioner have decided to take this route." 

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Jason Theriault's picture

Many problems

The thing is, while there are compelling arguments, you don't want to make things worse.

Example - Get rid of bad teachers. Yes, I want to get rid of bad teachers. But how do you measure bad teachers?
Grades? - A bad teacher will just fake it or make test ridiculously easy. Bad teachers may also try and find a way out of teaching to bad students, like saying they have a learning disability. It's hard to gauge performance when the people have to work to change a living, breathing person who may or may not cooperate.

See, it's not easy, and I can see why teachers fight this.

Another example - The schools of choice part. Again, not a bad idea, but it has the possibility of killing schools. Your going to shift resources from schools already having trouble to better schools. The problem is if your stuck at a crappy school, it's going to get MUCH MUCH worse.

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Bad ideas and the LePage Administration seem to collide

frequently.

State money for private religious schools - unarguably Unconstitutional, no accountability, no controls. Its everything you hate about public schools just made much worse.
I'll support teacher and administration evaluation changes when its not just cover to break the unions which seems to be the primary goal of the Republicans these days. Fact, the problems getting rid of bad teachers is a myth. When I went to the School Board Converences years ago sessions were held on "its easy to fire a teacher if you just document the situation". Truth is the problem of firing bad teachers is a superintendent problem not a union problem. Firing a teacher looks bad for the administrators. they would prefer to hide the situation than deal with it.
School Choice is just a way to force rural school consolidation without controls or a plan or accountability. Let the random acts of parents and students force the hand of the state and local governments. Its a really bad idea. 20 years from now we may not have schools as we know them today. Online education blended with small site instruction or big site instruction may completely change education. Delivering an education experience in large "factory" buildings is an expensive 19th century idea.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

Jon, I agree, except on the ease of firing teachers

I realize this piece regards NYC, but removing bad teachers in not easy at all, and the teachers' unions are behind the road block: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill

My brother-in-law, a 10th-grage history teacher, laments to me all the time about some of the horrible teachers his school simply can't get rid of -- even with loads of damning documentation.

I taught both English and biology years ago, and was stunned at some of the uninspired dinosaurs in the schools I was in. They were tenured gravy trainers, man. Yes, there were innumerable good-to-great teachers, but simply too many bad ones.

And current teacher evaluations are anything but stringent. I remember getting all 'E's for 'excellent' in my first review, and my pride was soon crushed when I was told that pretty much everybody gets 'E's.

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Its Maine

LePage's bill refer only to Maine. My experience refers only to Maine. I can't agree with you more that in some places and with some superintendents bad teachers grow like weeds. Its not a problem of teacher evaluations. The administrators know who the bad teachers are just as you and I did. The problem is they will not do their jobs and document why they are bad so that they can be fired.
Normally they use the military solution. I can't get into specifics, but we had a teacher who was worse than incompetent, worse than bad. Gave grades based on gender of the student and explicitly on their relationship. Superintendent promoted the teacher to a non-teaching position at greatly increased pay. Zero documentation.

Jennifer Chretien's picture

I like the teacher and

I like the teacher and administration evaluation piece. Teaching our children is one of the most important jobs out there, there really needs to be accountability. In any other job you have to do your job well or find a new one. Why don't we give our children the respect they deserve by weeding out the bad teachers who aren't doing their jobs and preparing them for the future. I really don't like the public funding of religious schools proposal, from any angle really. First you have the separation of church and state, public money shouldn't be funding religious education. Second if I were part of a religious school and took public money I would be concerned that then the state has it's foot in the door and may try to direct what I can and cannot teach. I have no issue with private/religious schools but in my opinion there needs to be a clear separation from public money.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

Oh, and on public school choice:

In order to save the [school], we had to destroy it. Screw fixing it, right? (read: sarcasm)

I weep for the comatose state of the American Community. (Though there's still a slight pulse.) George Harrison's "I, me, me, mine," should be the theme song for LePage, his Ayn-Randian legion of cantankerous curmudgeons, and all the other lockstep TEA Party ideologues in this bitterly divided nation.

Together we stand, divided we fall. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Selah.

Jennifer Chretien's picture

No disrespect intended here,

No disrespect intended here, in my opinion your comments don't seem to encourage coming together to solve any problems. I'm not defending the governor's divisive tone by any means. I get a bit of the same tone from your comments just coming from the other side of the issue. Again I'm not trying to be disrespectful, I just think that one side has to come at this (or any) issue with a tone of respect. I've really haven't heard it from the governor so maybe it needs to come from the other side. Just my opinion.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

Should I go back to singing Kumbaya? Awe, man.

You have a fair point, Jennifer. (I think my wife would agree with you too.) But good luck trying to get LeRage to compromise on anything whatsoever. There is no "coming together" in his (or Ron Paul's) policies. (See LeRage's loathsome disdain for the recent bipartisan budget proposal.)'Tis my style to (hopefully) be sardonic. Live by the pen, die by the pen, I say. However, I fully stand by my overly opinionated posts. And yes, I have full glass insurance. *wink*

Jennifer Chretien's picture

I hear you, coming together

I hear you, coming together is a phrase that is not in the governor's vocabulary. His response to the bipartisan budget was quite frankly a bit scary. No Kumbaya necessary, I appreciate being able to share opinions whether the same or different in this forum. Keep them coming as I will also. Have a good day!

Joe Gray's picture

Waiting for Superman

This documentary, available at the Lewiston library, concerns Ms Rhee and her efforts to reform DC public schools. It is rather sympathetic to Ms Rhee and fairly anti teachers unions.

Please try to watch it. It will make you think, if only to research the situation more in depth.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

Religious schools sure do work well in the Middle East.

Yes, we need more kids attending religious schools that teach thousands-of-years-old dogma instead of today and tomorrow's science and technology. It's done well for the multitudes of brainwashed Muslim children, who blow up so quick these days *sigh*, from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, et al.

Maybe kids can read their bibles, Korans, or Torahs on holy iPads, and then write digital "reports" debunking evolution and science -- analogous structures, the fossil record, and radioactive dating be damned -- while espousing the hypocrisies, lies, and blood-drenched stories of their holy books. (Leviticus and Revelations would be great reality TV. The proper stoning of misbehaving children would certainly command high Nielsen ratings, I'm sure.)

I presume the taxpayer dollars of god-fearing (and rational-thought denying) Christians would also go to help fund a Madras in Portland, right? Or is the "choice" only for Christian schools (no, not the Mormons, silly), and maybe one or two for the Jews, as long as they don't complain too much about having to hear Merry Christmas at Christmastime? (Eight days of gifts for Hanukkah? Sign me up, man.)

But I will not defend the teacher's union. Bad teachers, like bad employees, need to be fired. And good teachers should be compensated well (read: better), which would attract the upper quartile of college graduates to the education field, not from the bottom quartile, as is currently the case in this country.

I now turn things over to the Glenn Beck acolytes and Ron Paul groupies.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Bad teachers

Just so you know bad teachers get fired all the time and put on probation in the public schools. At least they did where I worked. The only thing the union did was guarantee you a hearing and a representative if you were tenured. The untenured teachers are simply not rehired at the end of the year and no reason is given. However, as in other professions the better teachers and more highly trained teachers tend to go where they will be better paid. You can fire the bad teacher but if your salary is not competitive the next one you hire probably won't be much better. Unions are constantly advocating for better training for teachers and to allow people to collect both Social security and the state pension. As it is now, someone who worked for many years under Social Security who decides to become a teacher has to forfeit one of the pensions. There are many scientists and engineers, and technology workers who would love to come to teaching near the end of their careers but don't because of this. No one has more to gain by improving academic standards than the teachers or their unions.

 's picture

Paying for religious

Paying for religious education should be allowed only if no public education is available. You don't have a public high school, people should be given a set voucher for any school they wish to send their children to. IF there are public schools available, tough, pay for it yourself.

As for school choice, if the state will pay for public transportation, then perhaps it could fly, otherwise you'd be pitting the haves and have nots, another republican example of class warfare.

Bob Wright's picture

I ugree with yu Claire. I

I ugree with yu Claire. I went to publik skools and I probubly woodent have guttin a good ejoocation if my parunts had ben abel to sent me to won of those religion skools. I thank my luky stars four tha hiely gualifide teechas I had in the publik skools. Thank yu for servus to the childrun Claaire.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Cute

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Public schools routinely educate students successfully and send them off to college. If you don't believe me check on the local seniors this spring and see how many there are who are going on. And our local schools do not even meet the NCLB goals! The thing is while public schools have no problem educating students who come to them from stable homes with parents who care about their child's education, their mandate is to educate EVERYBODY. That includes the learning disabled,physically disabled, the homeless, the emotionally disturbed,the language impaired, the unmotivated, the criminals, even those that are absent most of the time. Even with all that, the majority of students are achieving what they need to. Those that are not mostly reflect society's problems which end up dumped into the lap of the public schools. Private schools do not compare any better. Some are excellent and some are awful. Like the public schools. The difference is there is a lot less accountability in the private schools and most of them offer a very narrow curriculum and range of services.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

And Bob, my 11 year old was

And Bob, my 11 year old was reading over my shoulder because he has to find a current event to write about for school and he says, "If that man can't spell maybe he should go back to school and learn, don't you know how to use a dictionary"....just thought it was cute that my 11 year old in public school thinks he can spell better than an adult.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Bob....I went to public

Bob....I went to public schools. My children have gone and are going to public schools. The problem is the government interfering with education in the first place. We already have the choice to send our children to another school if our school is failing to meet the standards. The problem is all schools in Lewiston are failing and it is not because of the teachers. It is because of the standardized testing that is pointless. The averages of the tests include the ELL students as well as the students that speak English very well. Stop mandating things and start paying for what the students and teachers need. Remember if a child doesn't learn it is not just the fault of the school. Parents are responsible for teaching their children as well as children are responsible for doing the work and not blowing it off.

I have cousins who attended a religious private school and guess what...they are no smarter then any of the rest of us. The only difference is that their education cost more then the rest of the family's did.

Shane Morin's picture

I approve of most of this

I approve of most of this plan. The school choice initiative seems to be done in a fairly safe manner that will have more positive effects than negative ones for schools and students.

However, the state government has NO business in providing funding to religious schools. It's a shame this exists as a massive blemish in an otherwise sound set of reforms.

JOANNE MOORE's picture

Senator Alfond must be naive....

....if he didn't see this coming. The bible thumpers have been salivating at the chance to get hold of tax dollars to fund their schools as far back as I can remember.... the Constitution be damned.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

A bull in a china shop

We were better off last week when the governor was going to close the schools. Ms. Rhee and her program were phased out of the DC schools because it did not succeed in providing better education, cost more, and created huge divisions between the stakeholders because of her penchant for massively closing schools, firing people arbitrarily, and a whiff of a scandal regarding cheating on tests. But in light of her close association with Gov Walker of Wisconsin I guess all of that is OK. They sure would know what's best for Maine schools over there. When the governor gives a family money to attend a private school does that mean the school has to provide the same curriculum, services, proficiency testing that the public schools have? Do they have to have "Highly qualified" teachers like the public schools do? If not, then you are playing a shell game with the students that is dishonest. In any case the state has no money, we are constantly being told, and I don't see that we have money to spend teaching kids about religion or pay consulting fees to Ms. Rhee and her group.

Shane Morin's picture

Rhee took a bold approach to

Rhee took a bold approach to fix a broken system and change the culture of a failing district. Whether or not she was a success is a matter of opinion, but she deserves credit because we need more people like her that are audacious enough to take risks in overhauling the system. It's hard to argue against the fact that public education in this country needs a big fix, and that fix should be centered as locally as possible.

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