EDITORIALS

School choice bills risk widening quality gap

Posted March 13, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (right) smiles during a ceremony where he signed a bill authorizing charter schools at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday in June 2011. Maine will become the 41st state in the nation to allow such schools. At left is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (right) smiles during a ceremony where he signed a bill authorizing charter schools at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday in June 2011. Maine will become the 41st state in the nation to allow such schools. At left is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

Two of the governor’s education bills deserve to be defeated and a third should be amended. The two bills, which would take the “public” out of public education and put schools in the marketplace, have the potential to widen, not bridge the gap between good schools and bad schools. The third, implementing a standardized teacher evaluation system, is sound in theory but needs tweaking.

Gov. Paul LePage genuinely wants to improve public education in Maine. Though some of his agenda seems based in a resentment for public sector workers, most of his ideas about schools are not aimed at punishing teachers but rather highlight other parts of the school picture.

These include the need to provide paths for students bound for trades and other skilled labor jobs, getting the most out of each state education dollar and building more accountability into the unwritten contract between taxpayers and teachers.

And Education Commissioner Steve Bowen has set the table for a vigorous debate about how schools should be structured in the 21st century, a debate that’s long overdue.

But the two school choice bills — allowing families to choose to send their children to schools in other administrative districts if there are openings, and allowing the state to send funds to private religious schools — have the potential to increase the gap between good schools and bad schools. Both will be the subject of public hearings before the Legislature’s Education Committee beginning at 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 15.

LR 2775, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students, would allow schools to accept students from outside their town and district boundaries and still receive state education dollars. The idea is that parents whose local school is not performing well can enroll their child in another school.

Mr. Bowen and other proponents believe schools losing students will shape up. But how? They will be losing funding. They will likely end up with students whose families are unable or unwilling to get them to the “better” schools, thereby accelerating the downward spiral. Good teachers won’t want to take jobs in such schools.

Market forces are exactly what the early American proponents of free public education wanted to avoid, so that rich and poor would have the same opportunities.

The second bill, LR 2774, An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools, is similar. It would allow state funds to be used to pay tuition to private schools, including schools with religious curricula. For example, the city of Portland currently does not receive state education money for Portland students attending that city’s private Wayneflete School. Under the proposed change, the school would receive that aid.

The problem is that state education funding is not likely to increase, so the slices of pie being passed among the state’s schools would get smaller.

A third bill would implement a statewide teacher evaluation system. The Maine Education Association, which represents teacher interests, does not object to the concept of evaluating teachers. In fact, the MEA’s board of directors last year endorsed a teacher evaluation policy developed by the National Education Association.

In the governor’s bill on teacher evaluation, though, is a component that would allow superintendents to consider a teacher’s evaluation in laying off teachers when budgets call for such cuts. MEA Executive Director Rob Walker argues that a bad teacher should be removed based on job performance before such cuts are needed. The association wants to stick to seniority as the criteria for cuts required for budgetary reasons.

The MEA also objects to a part of the evaluation bill that allows appeals of evaluation on incorrect implementation of the process, not for subjective mistakes.

Both problems should be easily fixed.

The governor and commissioner want to see bold changes in education, but the school choice initiative carries with it unacceptable risks. The bills should be defeated.

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