Innovation vs. Inertia

Posted March 19, 2010, at 5:39 p.m.

A bill to allow so-called innovative schools in Maine is a small step in the necessary reform of the state’s public school system. For those who wanted full-fledged charter schools, this legislation falls short. But forgoing this start to reform and maintaining the status quo would be shortsighted.

Coupled with other changes — such as allowing student performance data to be compared to teacher information — lawmakers have an opportunity to allow Maine schools to move ahead with needed improvements, and maybe receive federal funding for this work.

If they reject these changes, lawmakers will forgo up to $75 million for Maine’s schools from the federal Race to the Top program, while sending the message that attempts at improvement are futile.

The Legislature’s Education Committee earlier this week endorsed a bill Monday to allow “innovative schools.” The bill would enable school districts to create autonomous schools with more flexibility with regard to curricula, staff selection, school calendars and student and teacher assessment processes than traditional schools.

The policies and practices at the innovative schools could exceed — but not conflict with — existing statutory or regulatory requirements for public schools. Charter school supporters are right that this limits the autonomy of these schools and won’t lead to significant innovation.

Given the Legislature’s hesitancy to approve full-fledged charter schools, which could operate more freely from state regulations, legislation allowing innovative schools is better than no change at all. Last year, both the governor and commissioner of education supported a bill allowing charter schools, on a pilot basis, but it was narrowly rejected by lawmakers, many of whom are influenced by the powerful Maine Education Association, the state’s union for educators.

Critics of LD 1801 are also right that it is not significant reform.

“I come before you today to testify in opposition to all three of these bills, not because I think what they seek to accomplish is necessarily wrong, but because in the context of the very real competition for a federal Race to the Top grant, the bills before you don’t do nearly enough. Not even close,” Steven Bowen, director of the Center for Education Excellence at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, told the Education Committee earlier this month.

The bills, however, are only part of the state’s attempt to revamp its schools. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is currently traveling the state to gather public thoughts on state and school district reform plans.

Without changes — at both the state and local level — Maine likely won’t be eligible for the Race to the Top funds.

The changes proposed by the Education Department are the beginnings of that work, not the end.

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