Officials at the Maine Department of Education knew a month ago that the state had failed in its bid to win millions of dollars for schools in the federal Race to the Top education reform grant competition.
But they didn’t know how far off the mark Maine’s application was until this week, when the U.S. Department of Education released numbers showing that Maine was ranked 33rd among 36 states in the running for a share of $3.4 billion. Only Mississippi, Montana and Alabama fared worse in the second round of the controversial contest, which has dangled a large carrot in the form of federal stimulus dollars in front of states that are supporting comprehensive school reform.
In this final round, Washington, D.C., and nine states learned Tuesday that they will share in the money.
For outgoing state Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, who serves on the Maine Legislature’s joint standing committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, the whole process has left her with many questions — and a lot of dismay.
“To be with Mississippi and Alabama — at the bottom — is embarrassing,” she said Wednesday. “Especially coming from a state that has touted its leadership in education.”
Maine’s application scored just 283.4 points out of a possible 500 available in criteria that included state success factors, educational standards and assessments, eligibility requirements and assessments for teachers, and plans to improve the lowest achieving schools.
While the state got high marks from the panel of education experts reviewing the application for Maine’s detailed plans to make education funding a priority and to turn around the lowest performing schools, it lost major points in other areas. Because the Maine Legislature does not allow charter schools, the state lost 32 points automatically, and also seemed to struggle in proving that school districts would participate in the state’s education reform agenda.
Only 38 percent of the state’s “local education agencies,” or school districts, supported Maine’s Race to the Top application, and only 30 percent of its local teachers’ union leaders did, which several of the U.S. Department of Education evaluators noted as being problematic.
“The lack of strong teacher support is cause for concern,” one application evaluator wrote. Another wrote that “Maine appears to have only low to moderate commitment from [local education agencies].” Other evaluators said that the application did not have enough specifics.
“Though the state’s achievement rates are already fairly high, student achievement goals are not ambitious and there isn’t a stated rationale for how they were set,” one wrote. “The plan only vaguely addresses closing the achievement gaps.”
Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin seemed to be looking on the bright side on Wednesday, as state officials sifted through the pages and pages of comments and scores.
“We scored quite well in standards and assessments, which we’re very pleased with. We’ve been saying for a long time that we’re leaders in that area,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of information to be looked at, a lot of things to consider.”
According to Connerty-Marin, Maine used a $75,000 grant to pay the national consulting firm WestEd to write some of the 200-page application with teams within the Maine Department of Education also working on it.
That was not necessarily money well spent, according to Steven Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, who has read the application and critiqued it on his blog: www.mainefreedomforum.com.
“It’s hard to read. It’s just so uneven,” he said of the document. “We should get our money back if we hired somebody to write it, because it’s a mess.”
Bowen, who was a social studies teacher and also served in the state Legislature before working at the policy center, said that the Obama administration was looking for two main things in the contest — a state that has a tradition of reform and also a comprehensive plan with broad-based support that “shows promise and can get done.”
“I think there’s some good ideas in there,” he said. “You hope that we are sufficiently stung by this rebuke from Washington, and this humiliation, there’s no other word for it. … You hope that there really is a vision there that somebody can build on.”
According to Bowen, educational reform in Maine is crucial. He contrasted the Pine Tree State with Florida, which won $700 million in Race to the Top funds and has “done everything” — including instituting performance-based pay for teachers and standards-based learning for students.
“It’s frightening how far behind we are,” Bowen said. But Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association, disagreed with that judgement.
“This Department of Education put out what their priorities are for public schools,” Galgay said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with Maine schools. We’re just not jumping through the hoops they want us to jump through.”
Galgay also suggested that the idea of distributing federal dollars through a competitive grant was not a good one.
“Those federal dollars that came from Maine taxpayers went to other states,” he said. “Not a nickel came back here.”