LePage’s school grades, funding, charter schools: What’s ahead for Maine’s new education chief

Posted Jan. 10, 2014, at 9:47 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 10, 2014, at 11:16 a.m.
Jim Rier is acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.
Samantha Warren
Jim Rier is acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.

Maine education numbers

  • Number of school districts in 2012-13: 236 (53 do not operate schools)
  • Number of school districts with fewer than 1,000 students: 170
  • Number of students including pre-K: 185,738
  • Average spending per pupil, not including federal funds: $11,218 (2011-12)
  • Number of superintendents: 116, including part-time
  • Average superintendent salary: $92,576
  • Average teacher/instructor salary: $48,418
Source: Maine Department of Education

Gov. Paul LePage said Monday he’s chosen Jim Rier to serve as his commissioner of education. Rier, whose nomination is subject to confirmation by the state Legislature, is currently the Department of Education’s acting commissioner and has worked at the state agency for a decade, most of it overseeing Maine school finance and operations.

BDN editorial staff sat down with Rier on Wednesday, the first day of a new legislative session that will force the commissioner designate to deal with potential changes to the state’s school funding formula, efforts to increase access to early childhood education and a second round of grades for Maine’s public schools — part of a controversial initiative LePage introduced last year.

Below are excerpts from the conversation. Parts have been edited for length and clarity.

Last year, a lot of what dominated the debate was the school grading system. We’re interested in what you do next. You’ve discussed support for schools that received low grades. What, specifically, do the next steps look like?

I’m a very strong supporter of what happened. I think it is about time we started drawing more attention, as difficult as it is for communities and schools and staff, to have that identification occur. It isn’t as if it’s based on new data. It’s been there. I think once we get past the struggle with the attention being drawn to it, it can be a very positive thing because — with the department’s support, hopefully — it takes a very committed interest from the local community to say, “Maybe we’d better address these issues here. We’re graduating 75 percent of our kids who are not proficient in a certain area. What do we need to do to begin to look at how to make that change?”

We’re paying attention to what other states have learned in going through this process as well. Keeping it simple and easily understood by the public is very important because some states got very complicated about it and, I think, you start to lose the focus when that happens. Most people today can look at the data that we’re using to identify schools and say, “Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess I should have been paying attention to that before.”

Part of what has been talked about so much over the past several years is implementing rigorous standards to prepare students for careers and college. Gov. LePage told a reporter last year, “I don’t believe in Common Core. I believe in raising the standards in education.” Could you clear up the administration’s thinking on the Common Core State Standards?

I can without any doubt say that the administration supports rigorous standards for students. Maine has had in place — and they did get upgraded in 2011 — Maine Learning Results, which are standards for the state of Maine. They are being characterized as being completely replaced by Common Core. I would emphasize that’s only in two [subject areas]: [English Language Arts] and math. We have far more that we have standards in place for, and we will continue to work at those, just like we would if this whole controversy hadn’t gotten underway about the definition of Common Core and where it came from. They are required by law and have been since 2011, so schools are responding to Maine’s standards and working effectively — this year, the first with full implementation of them.

Should all early childhood education providers participate in a quality rating system so that people at least know where they stand on the scale?

Right now, the [public early childhood education programs] that we’re supporting … are part of, my words, an academic [kindergarten] program, if you will. They’re being provided by local school districts as part of their kindergarten program and bringing students in early. That is, hopefully, ensuring some of that quality that we’re talking about. We believe strongly that we need to work to improve that and to ensure that that is consistent across all school units that are offering it.

We think mandating [pre-K programs] will get us off track from what I think we’re already doing. It doesn’t mean in any way that we somehow don’t see preschool — we believe strongly that’s important to achieve success in K-3, so kids are prepared for that grade span.

At this point, what role do you see charter schools playing in Maine’s education landscape?

It isn’t as if charter schools are a solution for every child. They’re providing a new, committed kind of atmosphere for kids that I think is very positive. A lot of that is coming from not just the charter school, but it’s the way it’s put together. There’s a lot of local and parent support for it, and I think those are leading to, or will eventually, to very positive outcomes for kids. There’s example after example where students have maybe not found the public school that they otherwise would attend something they want to do. I think the charter provides one more opportunity for some kids to really succeed.

Do you have a proposed remedy for resolving the funding tension between charter schools and local school districts?

I had that last session. That’s one of the issues that I hope we can revisit. Whether this session’s right to do it or not, we had a solution that would have treated charter schools just like public schools and would have calculated funding, provided it to them directly, and it would have worked very well. Much less burdensome.

Should the 10-school limit that the Maine Charter School Commission has to adhere to stay in place?

As far as I’m concerned, it will. We don’t have an initiative to change it. Will there be an initiative at some point to change it? That’s possible.

The governor has made much of Maine’s per-pupil expenditure and its relation to other states. Is it a priority of yours to get a handle on it and reduce it? And if so, how?

It’s always important when we start comparing ourselves to other states to fully understand whether we’ve done an apples-to-apples comparison because there are frequently modifications being made there to make comparisons that aren’t necessarily representative of the same costs and so forth. I’m not criticizing what the governor has said. I’m just saying, as we look at other states, to make that determination, we need to be very careful that we’re comparing the same kinds of things.

No matter what source you look at, Maine does spend more per pupil than a lot of states do, and I think it should continue to be of concern to us. I think it has been for some time as we have brought more controls to how budgets are approved.

Are administration costs too high?

They are in some units, for sure. There will continue to be more attention drawn to that. I wouldn’t want to miss the chance on that question to point out again the administrative costs for running 200 school units. Troubling to me are units that are de-organizing or coming out of RSUs, many times with very little thought in the financial implications for that, and one of them’s going to be that the administrative costs are going to go higher. We’ve had eight or nine of them actually withdraw.

From my perspective, the units that have just withdrawn, it remains to be seen whether that’s going to have been a good thing or not. Because financially, I would argue strongly it’s not going to have been a good thing and will further contribute to, in some units, higher administrative costs.

Matthew is BDN opinion page editor. Erin Rhoda is BDN editorial page editor.

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