Maine seeks to compete for education funding

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AUGUSTA – Maine’s education commissioner on Thursday presented lawmakers with three proposals aimed at better positioning the state to compete for federal education funding, but skeptics called those proposals too little, too late.

Maine could qualify for up to $100 million in federal funding under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program if the state moves forward legislation that “removes barriers that would prevent us from competing,” Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said during a legislative committee meeting.

Maine was one of 10 states that was ineligible to apply for the first round of Race to the Top funding. Gendron said the proposed initiatives are aimed at making Maine eligible for the next round and beefing up its chances to beat out other states for the funding.

The measures presented to members of the Legislature’s Education Committee would allow student performance to be linked to teacher and principal evaluations, would adopt a new set of core standards for K-12 students and would allow school districts to authorize autonomous “innovation” schools.

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According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site, “awards in Race to the Top will go to states that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.”

Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center spoke against all three proposals, though he supports the goals of the federal competition.

“These don’t do nearly enough, not even close,” he said. “We’ve known about it for a year; we’ve had the applications since November. Eligibility is the least of our worries – this is a competition, we have to compete against states that are doing really innovative things.”

Leon Levesque, superintendent of Lewiston schools, said he was not opposed to the concepts of using student achievement as part of a model to evaluate teacher performance or developing innovative schools.

“But the devil is in the details: How’s it going to be done?” he said. “We’ve heard rumors, but there’s no one who knows much about it. It’s been developed by the (state) Department of Education and it’s going straight to the committee for review. It hasn’t been given to us to read.”

Lawmakers were also frustrated with the lack of detail offered by Gendron.

“I wish these had come a month ago,” said state Rep. Pat Sutherland, D-Chapman, the House committee chairwoman. “You are asking us to go ahead and give you an OK to do all this. The assumptions are kind of scary.”

Sutherland and her colleagues asked Gendron for clarification about differences between the Maine Learning Results and the set of Common Core State Standards lawmakers are being asked to adopt.

Gendron said the new standards, which would be adopted by most states, wouldn’t be ready until late April or early May.

“Our (Maine) standards are considered quite rigorous; we want to make sure these guidelines are equally so,” Gendron said.

Many school organizations offered qualified support for the initiatives, but the Maine Education Association opposed using student performance to evaluate teachers. The MEA is a union representing about 25,000 teachers statewide.

“There is little or no evidence that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations is an accurate or useful way to measure teacher effectiveness,” said Chris Galgay, MEA president. “Are we willing, as a state, to change our education laws with very little debate and deliberation, and with an emergency timeline, so that we might get a few more dollars from the federal government?”

Gendron said she would conduct five public forums across the state between March 15 and March 25 to discuss the initiatives and get feedback from teachers, parents and others.

One will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 18, at the University of Maine at Farmington. Others are scheduled to take place in Westbrook, Orono, Machias and Presque Isle.

The Education Committee has about one week to deliberate and vote on the legislation.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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