House rejects standards-based education bill after lengthy debate

Posted April 04, 2012, at 5:23 p.m.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a rare close vote that did not fall along party lines, the Maine House on Wednesday rejected a bill to require school districts across the state to move toward a standards-based education model.

The bill, LD 1422, An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy, was discussed at length, amended considerably and then approved unanimously several weeks ago by the Education Committee.

However, in recent weeks support for the measure weakened as lawmakers learned more about what it does.

On Wednesday, the bill generated significant House debate from all sides before the 76-67 vote. Since the bill had a mandate preamble, it needed two-thirds support in the House and therefore failed.

It now goes to the Senate.

In essence, the measure directs the Department of Education to develop a plan that transitions all school districts to a standards-based system of education that awards a high school diploma based on a student’s demonstrated proficiency in all areas of assessment.

Put more simply, students can go at their own pace and move on once they have demonstrated mastery of a subject.

The bill also waives age- and grade-related requirements in law. That means, a 16-year-old could graduate high school if he or she has demonstrated proficiency in all areas or a 21-year-old could be held back until he or she masters all subjects.

Critics said the mandate aspect of the bill is reminiscent of former Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to force school districts to consolidate.

“It’s the same mistake we made with RSUs, pushing it through with no buy-in from the local communities,” said Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich.

Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, said Maine would become the first state to create such a mandate. The bill would require implementation of standards-based education by 2017, or 2020 if a waiver is granted, but would not necessarily provide funding to districts to carry out the plan.

“Why would we force districts to spend limited resources?” she asked. “If [districts] want to adopt this, they can.”

Maloney also said she’s not convinced standards-based education works.

“I would like to see test scores before implementation and after implementation,” she said.

Rep. Dick Wagner, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Education Committee, was among those who supported the bill.

“This is a change for sure,” he said. “No change is pretty; no change is nice and neat. You can’t package this and put a bow on it. But we’ve got to get started somewhere.

Wagner said he believes local control is preserved with LD 1422.

But just as Democrats were divided on the bill, so too were Republicans.

“I feel like it has come at the last minute; there is still a lot of controversy remaining,” said Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham. “All I ask is that we slow down. Sometimes the best action is no action.”

Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, said the bill is “just another shuffling of the deck chairs” that takes away local control.

Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, likened the bill to a dating experience he had in high school. He asked a girl out on a date. He liked lobster; she liked hamburgers. Fredette told her she had to eat lobster but then made her pay, too. He didn’t get a second date.

Fredette said LD 1422 essentially was saying “You have to eat what I want to eat and then you have to pay.” He said he couldn’t take that risk with local taxpayers.

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, who sits on the Education Committee, said he supported the bill because it puts students first.

The bill also had the strong support of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

“The reality is that LD 1422, simply and very importantly, requires that a diploma have meaning and that it have the same meaning across the state,” said David Connerty-Marin, education department spokesman, on Tuesday. “There should be a measure that students are ready for success beyond high school.”

Connerty-Marin said although there is a mandate that schools move toward the standards-based system, nothing in the bill addresses instruction. In short, teachers can do what they have always done as long as their students meet proficiency goals.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics

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