AUGUSTA, Maine — Holding schools accountable for student achievement is a concept that most people can agree on, but some of the ideas proposed by Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday during the State of the State address might be dead before they gain any traction.
Accountability is at the core of many of the initiatives discussed by LePage, including giving schools letter grades based on their performance and requiring local school districts to pick up the cost of remedial education courses needed by students in higher education.
Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, went as far Wednesday as calling those initiatives “crazy.”
“You can’t do those things,” MacDonald said. “They’re inadequate.”
Sen. Brian Langley, ranking Republican on the education committee, said he could see merit in the school grading initiative.
“If people are looking to move to Maine, they want to know how good are your schools,” he said. “I’m curious to see how others see that system.”
The grading system mirrors a program in Florida that has been in place since 1999 when it was implemented by Gov. Jeb Bush. The number of schools receiving low grades has decreased and more schools are now receiving A’s and B’s, according to news reports.
Some education experts say a system like that could be disastrous, especially for communities where schools receive low grades. Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union, said that the long-term effects of the grading system could lead to fewer people and businesses willing to locate in some towns.
“There are solutions to solving that problem without penalizing the population,” he said. “It sounds simple, but it’s not.”
Maine schools are already held to strict achievement guidelines under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires all schools to meet increasingly difficult achievement benchmarks with the goal of bringing all students to proficiency by 2014. Schools that fail to meet the benchmarks in consecutive years experience a range of interventions by the Department of Education that ramp up until the school meets the ESEA benchmarks.
The Maine Department of Education also publishes an annual list of the state’s “lowest-achieving schools.”
Bill Webster, superintendent of Lewiston-area schools, said one school in his district has shown up on that list more than once despite a dedicated staff teaching an innovative curriculum. He attributed the cause to poverty, poor parent involvement and other reasons. Other factors include how much money a given community spends on education, which varies widely across Maine, as well as, in Lewiston’s case, a high percentage of students who speak English as a second language.
“My concern about ranking is that many ranking systems are more reflective of what happens at home with the parents,” Webster said. “There’s nothing more debilitating to a hard-working teacher than to be told they’re not doing a good job.”
During the speech, LePage reiterated his position that administrative costs for Maine schools are too high, citing the state of Florida as an example. Despite having almost 14 times the number of students as Maine does, Florida has less than half the number of superintendents. LePage suggested money currently paying administrative salaries would be much better spent in classrooms, although he outlined no specific plans to make this happen.
The governor also said Maine spends more than twice the national average on administrative overhead and has the highest district administration costs in the nation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine spent $1,220 per student on general and school administration in 2009-10, about 58 percent higher than the national average of $774 per student. Maine’s administration spending was topped by Washington, D.C., ($1,756) and Vermont ($1,463), the Census Bureau data show. Maine’s total per-student spending was $12,259, a figure lower than 13 states and Washington, D.C.
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, questioned the validity of LePage’s comparison of Maine to Florida.
“In Florida, you have county and district superintendents,” she said. “Underneath that structure is a support structure that includes administrators with specific job functions. In Maine, superintendents do a lot more.”
Another initiative trumpeted by LePage is hardly new since his administration took office: charter schools and, by extension, the larger issue of school choice. If LePage has his way, choices for students about which schools they attend essentially would be wide open.
Walker, of the MEA, said even a handful of students leaving a small school in rural Maine could lead to program cuts and layoffs that would affect the entire student body.
Brown agreed. “You should not take resources from one school to another one with the expectation that both schools will improve,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
But LePage has said repeatedly that his support of school choice is about what’s best for the individual student.
MacDonald said he believes that instead of letting students choose which public school they attend, the goal for the state ought to be moving toward individualized learning plans designed to serve students with a range of abilities and backgrounds.
Brown said she admires LePage’s passion for improving education, but disagrees with some of his ideas to achieve that. She added that his goals would be easier to achieve if local schools weren’t so focused on dealing with funding issues.
“If the bigger public policy goal is to have all students meet certain standards, you have to give schools the resources to reach those standards,” Brown said. “We have a lot of uneven places in Maine where kids don’t have early childhood education opportunities or the same level of quality of early education.”
Walker said he expects a vigorous debate surrounding education this legislative session, which he hopes will lead to enactment of some of LePage’s initiatives and the deaths of others.
“The governor uses his position as governor to say ‘this is the right answer,’” Walker said. “But we think he doesn’t have all the right answers.”