AUGUSTA, Maine — It was nearly a month ago that Gov. Paul LePage unveiled a controversial package of education proposals that include teacher evaluation, school choice and diverting public funding for religious schools.
The debate over those initiatives was expected to be contentious. It still is.
But with just a few days left before legislative committees are mandated to report out bills, the debate has not taken place. In fact, the four bills have not been referred to committee and no public hearing has been scheduled.
Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Tuesday that the bills have been unexpectedly delayed in the Office of the Revisor of Statues.
Some Democrats and the Maine Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers union, say that explanation is dubious. Chris Galgay, president of the MEA, said Tuesday that he thinks the administration is delaying the bills to limit public debate.
“I think it’s a strategy,” Calgay said. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s hold the bills until the end and let’s ram them through.’ ”
Holding controversial legislation until the end of the session isn’t uncommon — hotly contested debates early on can sometimes jeopardize agreements on less contentious bills.
However, Galgay and others believe the education bills’ holdup is different — part of a pattern.
Galgay brought up last year’s charter school bill, which was presented and printed early in the year but didn’t receive a public hearing until toward the end of the session. Only two lawmakers attended the majority of the public hearing, in part because it took place at the same time the House of Representatives debated a highly contentious health insurance overhaul bill.
“It may have happened by accident last year,” Galgay said. “But I think they found an accidental strategy.”
He added, “These may be bigger policy bills than the charter school bill.”
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who sits on the Education Committee, denied that anything nefarious was taking place. He said lawmakers were well acquainted with the content of the proposals.
“These ideas that the governor’s office have come out with are not radical departures from reality elsewhere,” Mason said. “A lot of other states use methods like this. They use choice, religious schools. … They’ll have a fair hearing as every bill does in the Legislature.”
He added, “There is no evil underlying motive to it. It’s just the way our process works.”
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the administration had demonstrated a pattern of delaying hearings on controversial bills.
“These bills come out, they’re complicated and contentious, and all of a sudden the input from the public and from the committee will be limited,” Alfond said. “There’s a very short period of time before these bills have to be sent before the full [Legislature].”
Last week, Republican leadership notified all committees that Friday was the deadline to vote committee bills. Given that the education bills have not yet been referred to committees, the Legislature’s Education Committee could receive an extension. However, in the letter to committee leadership, House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said all committee business should be completed by March 16.
The memo also noted that bills referred to committee after March 2 would not have to publish a public hearing notice in the state’s daily newspapers.
“I think that is an unfortunate decision by the governor,” Alfond said. “I think this is absolutely a delay tactic to ensure that the public and this committee has as little time as possible to hear these bills, to deliberate them and to create good public policy.”
Bowen said the administration had anticipated a faster turnaround by the Revisor’s Office. Nonetheless, he said, stakeholders such as the MEA had actively been engaged in the process. Bowen added that some of the concerns about the proposals would be reflected in the final bills.
“I get the frustration,” Bowen said. “When we were mapping this out we had anticipated that these would come out of the Revisor’s Office pretty quickly and that we’d be a month into the public hearing process.”
Alfond wasn’t convinced that delays drafting the bills were legitimate. For example, he said, he had been told that the funding for religious schools was a “one sentence” change to the current law.
“If the Tevisor’s Office can’t change one sentence in a month, then I question [the administration’s] story,” he said. “I question their story a lot.”
Questioning the process is just the latest critique of the governor’s education proposals. When the package was unveiled last week, some noted that the teacher evaluation legislation was markedly similar to model legislation advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a national organization funded by corporations that create bills to be introduced in state legislatures.
The teacher evaluation bill is of chief concern to the MEA, which believes that it would unfairly allow superintendents and principals to favor certain teachers while jettisoning others.
The administration wants an evaluation program that allows districts to put ineffective teachers on probation if they can’t improve their performance over two consecutive school years.
Another bill would remove language prohibiting the use of public education money for private religious schools. Three similar proposals were advanced last year. All failed to gain legislative approval.
The debate is likely to evoke arguments over the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. Those who oppose using public funds for religious schools say the clause prohibits government funding for religious establishments. Proponents, meanwhile, read the clause to mean that diverting public funds is constitutional so long as the government doesn’t favor religious schools over public schools, or one faith over another.
The governor’s school choice initiative is also controversial. The state teachers union believes it jeopardizes the viability of rural schools due to the potential of declining enrollment.
Bowen has said school choice participants would set the number of students they would accept for the upcoming school year. If more students apply than there are openings, the schools would hold a lottery to determine which students would be taken. The process, the administration contends, would prevent schools from cherry-picking students.
The fourth proposal is less controversial. It would mandate that districts with career and technical education centers align their respective school calendars and make it easier for students to receive credits at their high school and in the Maine Community College System.
The education bills could be referred to committee this week. That will have to happen either Wednesday or Thursday when the Legislature is in session.
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