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

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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.

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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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