AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage overstated claims about how badly Maine students do academically as well as the uniqueness of his plan to fix the problem, according to some education and state policy experts.
For example, forcing public schools to reimburse colleges for remedial education, which LePage proposed this week, is not a new idea. It has been discussed and rejected in three states, including New Hampshire.
LePage, in a news conference on education reform Wednesday, said there is no precedent for some of the accountability measures he wants to sign into law in Maine, particularly one that would require high schools to reimburse colleges for remedial courses.
LePage, in comments that largely have been seen as a condemnation of Maine schools and students, said 54 percent of students who go to Maine’s community colleges and more than 20 percent of university system students require remedial courses. Those numbers are too high, according to LePage, who characterized the situation as too many students and families effectively paying double for their education — once through their tax dollars for public schools and again in tuition dollars in higher education.
“I’m going to propose legislation this session that says any sending high school that requires a child to take remedial courses, that sending school will pay for the remedial courses,” said LePage to a roomful of reporters and government officials. “I think that equals the playing field.”
There are at least three states, New Hampshire, Missouri and Oregon, where similar measures have been attempted in recent years, but they have failed in all three instances with the bills not making it out of those states’ legislative committees, according to research by the Bangor Daily News. Proposals from Republican lawmakers that would have required high schools to cover the costs of remedial courses their students needed in college failed in New Hampshire in 2011, in Missouri in 2009 and in Oregon in 2007.
According to Meagan Dorsch, director of public affairs for the National Conference of State Legislatures, no state has ever passed a law similar to the one proposed by LePage.
According to Helen Pelletier, spokeswoman for the Maine Community College System, LePage’s statement about 54 percent of community college students needing remedial courses in math, reading, writing and English as a second language is correct, to a point. She said the 54 percent figure refers only to students coming to community colleges directly out of high school, who comprise about 37 percent of each year’s new enrollments. Over the past three years, that equals about 3,500 out of more than 6,400 students enrolling in community colleges directly out of high school.
For those students, said Pelletier, there is no question that education costs are higher because they need to pay for remedial courses at a cost of about $258 per three-credit class on top of the courses required for their major. Pelletier estimated that remedial courses, which don’t count toward a student’s degree, cost the community college system approximately $1 million a year to administer and cost students another $1 million a year in tuition fees. The bulk of those students, about 45 percent, need remedial work — which means courses that bring them to where they should have been coming out of high school — in mathematics.
LePage also has been criticized for basing his criticisms Wednesday of Maine’s education system on a Harvard University study released earlier this month that found that in 2011, Maine ranked 40th out of 41 participating states in terms of its rate of improvement on a standardized test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That followed years of Maine ranking near the top in the nation on the standardized test.
Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, in written exchanges with LePage over the past week argued that because Maine’s test scores previously were among the top in the nation and remain in the “top tier,” improving them is harder. He said that’s what led to Maine’s poor ranking in the Harvard study. Iowa and Maine, noted Douglass, were among the highest performing states in the NAEP in 1992 and both scored poorly in the Harvard study. Conversely, Mississippi and Louisiana, which were among the lowest performing in 1992, ranked near the top in the Harvard study based on their achievement progress.
Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance, said the study did find that in general, states that were performing poorly 20 years ago have shown some of the highest rates of improvement. However, he noted that there are also examples of states, such as New Jersey and Delaware, that had high scores 20 years ago and still have made enough progress to rank near the top in the Harvard study. In other words, Peterson dismissed the argument that doing well to begin with makes progress unachievable.
“Maine is one of those states that hasn’t shown much gain over this period of time,” said Peterson. “I would say this is a wake-up call. There’s no reason why a high-performing state can’t move up.”
Peterson said Friday that Harvard hosted a conference on the study over the past two days and that some themes became apparent among states that ranked high. The most common thread among those states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, is some sort of requirement for high school students that they pass a test in or around the tenth grade or not graduate. He said that same requirement is common in high-performing countries around the world, which the Harvard study also addressed.
“That puts the responsibility on the student and the responsibility on the teacher,” said Peterson. “If a student is not passing the test, it becomes very clear that the school is not doing its job.”
Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said he agrees with LePage that there are too many students coming out of Maine high schools who need remedial work but that there are better solutions to the problem than LePage’s proposal that high schools “scratch out a check” for college remedial courses. A better solution might be for students to take placement exams before applying to colleges so local schools can help them where needed, such as through summer courses that already are offered by most schools free of charge.
“It may be that admissions offices at various institutions are admitting students on a marginal basis in an effort to increase their income,” said Stearns, who is the superintendent in MSAD 4 in the Guilford area. “I don’t believe that the solution is to have the local taxpayers pay for a bill that an individual has incurred. The problem is a little more complex and the solution is a little different than the governor is proposing.”
Stearns said he and many other superintendents take issue with LePage’s strong condemnation of Maine’s public schools on Wednesday. LePage described them as “dismal” and “failing” and said Maine students “are looked down upon” when they go elsewhere for jobs or education.
“I disagree with that completely,” said Stearns. “I think that most people in the state who understand the educational system and the teachers and our quality of instruction think those terms are inappropriate. The governor has a tremendous point, but some of the commentary around it and perhaps his solutions, there might be a better way.”
Adrienne Bennett, who is LePage’s communications director, said Friday that LePage wished to backtrack not on his goals for education reform, but on the tone he used Wednesday to deliver them. LePage declined a request for an interview with the Bangor Daily News.
“I talked with him about this this afternoon,” said Bennett. “He clarified his comments and said what he meant was that Maine is a lot less competitive than it was 20 years ago and that this [Harvard University] data proves that. He thinks we’ve lost an edge.”
In his weekly radio address, which is scheduled for broadcast Saturday, LePage used a much softer tone than he did Wednesday.
“What this tells us is that we were doing great 20 years ago, but those standards aren’t doing us any good today — just ask employers,” says LePage in the radio address. “We are on par to be average and I am not a fan of average because it means we’re just as close to the bottom as we are to the top. We can and must do better.”