Federal funds provoke House battle over teacher evaluation

Posted April 01, 2010, at 8:18 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — To be eligible for up to $75 million in new federal funds under the Race to the Top initiative of the Obama administration, Maine must change its law that bars school districts from using student achievement data in assessing teacher performance.

In a 72-71 vote, the House gave all but final approval Wednesday evening to make that change in state law.

“Even if the teachers and principals and school board and superintendent all think this is a great idea, they can’t do it,” said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “This simply allows them to do it. I hope you will consider the long-term implications.”

She said the bill is one of three proposed by Gov. John Baldacci to allow state schools to apply for the new funds. She said it is also likely the federal law that governs the $100 million a year that flows into the state for education programs will require using achievement data as part of the evaluation of a teacher’s performance in the future.

“This bill is about developing models that schools can use if they choose to use it,” said Rep. Ann Perry, D-Calais. “This is not about one standardized test.”

A nurse practitioner, Perry said she is subject to performance standards all the time. She said teachers also should be subject to assessment testing to make sure students are getting the education they need to compete in an increasingly complex society.

Rep. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said in his employment over the years he constantly has been subject to evaluations by employers. But, he said, teachers are different than many professions.

“So here we are [in a] rush to get money that we probably aren’t going to get. We are going to cobble something together,” he said. “I promise all of you, those of you that come back, you will be fixing it, as I have said many times, just like the school consolidation law.”

Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, a social studies teacher, said the type of assessments used in the business sector are not applicable to the teaching profession.

“Merit-based pay has some merit,” he said. “But unlike business performance, teaching performance is much more subjective. Judging good teaching is like judging good art or good music.”

Bolduc said basing teacher performance solely on test scores of their students would cause another set of problems. He said student performance is based on many factors, not just the quality of the teacher. For example, he said, what is going on in a student’s life at home can have a significant impact on that student’s performance on a test.

For many House members, the bottom line is that additional funding for schools is at risk at a time when the state has reduced its subsidies to local schools

“A couple of years ago I probably would have been opposed to this bill,” said Rep. Sean Flaherty, D-Scarborough. “And then something happened: The recession. Scarborough this year is cutting 45 teaching positions, and we are still raising property taxes. We are hurting, and we are not alone.”

He said there are teachers in his family, and he does not want to see further reductions in teachers anywhere in the future, and additional federal funds might help prevent that.

But Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, a retired teacher, warned local schools may not be able to use any additional federal funds as they would like.

“This money is not free,” he said. “They are going to give as all this money. Are we going to be able to do what we want with it, or are they going to tell us what to do with it.”

He said the “strings” on the federal money might prevent local schools from using funds where they are most needed.

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, said he doubts the state will get any additional funds under the Race to the Top program. He said the state has done a poor job positioning itself to compete with other states for the increased federal aid.

“The Commissioner [of Education] put forth three bills, and those three bills, in my estimation, were unsatisfactory in their detail of how Maine will compete,” he said. “However, they are important for us to be able to compete.”

The measure now goes to the Senate, which has yet to consider the legislation.

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