Maine education may be in a race to the bottom

Posted Dec. 21, 2009, at 7:39 p.m.

Gov. John Baldacci recently announced that the state would apply to the federal Department of Education for Race to the Top grant funds during the second round of applications in the spring of 2010. The Race to the Top is a competitive grant that focuses on encouraging innovation in education. The grant is valued at $4.35 billion nationally and is a part of the stimulus package; Maine could be eligible for up to $75 million.

Unfortunately, Maine schools do not do a good job of innovating. A report jointly sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress released in early November ranks Maine seventh from the bottom in terms of innovation. Undoubtedly that report — and the underlying reality — contributed to the governors’ decision not to apply for Race to the Top funds during round one.

It was not always this way. In 1873, back when its motto, Dirigo, was meaningful, Maine was the first state to pass a school choice law, permitting students from communities without high schools to be “tuitioned” to whatever high school they chose. It was a model law subsequently emulated and refined in other rural states.

Our Legislature has been moving slowly to permit educational innovation and rarely without the incentive of federal funding. This year Maine enacted LD 1277, “An Act to Encourage Alternative Compensation Models for Teachers and Administrators,” in response to another component of the stimulus package — the Teacher Incentive Fund. This $200 million competitive grant allows for teachers’ pay to be based in part on their job performance and their students’ progress. This is a pilot program subject to review by the Department of Education at the end of the 2012 school year.

The Legislature also passed LD 1356, a bill that permits the Department of Education to track students’ progress throughout all grades. Curiously, this bill was also in response to a federal grant of $250 million that would assist with tracking students’ progress. This bill will take effect in September 2010.

Unfortunately, the Legislature did not pass any legislation that would have allowed for the formation of charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that operate without the bureaucracy and regulations that constrain our traditional schools, and frequently operate at a much lower cost. As one of only 11 states that do not permit charter schools, Maine will be severely disadvantaged in any competition for innovation funds as part of the Race to the Top.

A $75 million grant would fill a large hole in the Department of Education budget, and would help relieve the pressure on property taxes, particularly here in hard-hit Hancock County. It is a shame that we were not in a position to apply for the first round of funding. After all, doesn’t it make perfect sense to pay teachers based on their performance and their students’ progress? And shouldn’t we be tracking such progress as well as the overall progress of our schools? And would not most students be well served by freeing teachers of their administrative burden to focus just on educating?

Despite having the second lowest student-to-teacher ratio of any state in the nation, Maine continues to do a poor job of innovating, while facing a significant budget crisis. It is all well and good to urge an educational race to the top, but looking at the record of both the governor and our Legislature it is hard to resist asking if we are not instead racing in the wrong direction — straight to the bottom.

Richard Malaby of Hancock is a business owner and a representative to the RSU 24 board.

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