SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen on Wednesday unveiled a series of legislative proposals on schools that immediately were condemned by the state teachers union and legislative Democrats.
The legislation would allow students to choose their own schools, permit state-funded tuition to private religious schools, and ask schools to build better teacher evaluation systems and enhance career and technical education.
“This is a pretty ambitious set of bills, as you can see,” Bowen said during a press conference at the Somerset Career and Technical Center.
LePage said the proposal is “all about students.”
The intent of the four-bill package is “making sure each student gets the education that he or she wants, not superintendents or schools telling them what they need to study,” the Republican governor said. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to give them the broadest scope of opportunities and pick the courses of study.”
Bowen said the bills are aimed at doing what’s right for Maine’s students.
“For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve had a school system that was basically structured around what made them administrative,” he said. “Schoolchildren attend the schools they attend because of their street address.”
The first bill proposes open enrollment — or school choice — whereby schools could accept students who apply from other districts if they have room.
LePage said having options available to students is important for Maine’s work force.
“All too often, the last 25 years, we’ve forgotten about trades and vocation in the state of Maine,” he said. “In order to move the state forward, we need one thing — a very talented work force.”
Bowen said that 17 other states in the country already allow for school choice. The proposed bill on school choice is based largely on Michigan’s law, he said.
If more students apply for more slots than are available, “we’d set up a lottery, a random draw system, so we don’t have school districts [selecting] certain students from here and there, and getting the best basketball players and the best math students,” Bowen said. “We want to have a fair process that is really going to allow options for kids.”
Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay strongly criticized the governor’s plans.
“This proposal pits one school district against the other with serious consequences. If schools begin losing students to nearby schools, they will likely face closure,” Galgay said in a statement. “The governor’s school choice plan is bad for local schools, bad for local communities and bad for Maine’s students and is an attack on the teachers who are tasked with educating them.”
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who attended the news conference, also opposed the legislation.
“School choice will put more of a burden on property tax payers, widen disparities between the haves and have-nots and weaken public education in rural Maine,” he said.
The second bill, which would allow private religious schools to receive state funds, also would give students more options, said Bowen.
It removes “an existing prohibition against the use of public tuition dollars for religious schools that would otherwise meet all the other state standards for receiving public funding,” he said.
Bowen noted that a handful of private schools already receive state-paid tuition, and he said the approval process is very rigorous.
“One line of that statute says that [the private school receiving public tuition] may not be religious. So we’re going to propose that that one single line of the statute is taken out,” said Bowen.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, criticized LePage’s proposal on school tuition.
“Using taxpayer money to pay for private schools is another example of short-sighted policy that chooses ideology over what’s best for Maine people,” said Alfond, who serves on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “We should be doing everything we can to strengthen our public schools, which is an investment in our future work force. Anything less cheats our children and our economic future.”
Bowen said school systems in other countries use a model that Maine should follow — they train their teachers and school administrators well and give them plenty of support.
“We want to get out and really focus on teacher and leader effectiveness,” Bowen said. [“We’ll be] asking school districts over the next couple of years to build new and better teacher evaluation systems. We will see how well teachers are doing and the leaders are doing. We get information about what extra training opportunities they may need to go along with that.”
Bowen, who taught in classrooms for 10 years, said the evaluations he received were worthless.
“I still have a stack of evaluations from when I was teaching. I don’t know if I got any value out of those experiences,” he said. “We need to build a much more rigorous system.”
In a press release, the MEA said it fears that the proposed evaluation system of teachers “will allow superintendents and principals to reward their favorite teachers and fire those that may speak up [for] the needs of their students.”
“If we are serious about improving education in Maine, we cannot think the starting point is building in favoritism and managerial games,” said Galgay. “Ruining the ability for teachers to put their students first is not the answer.”
The bills should be in their final form by the beginning of next week, said Bowen.