The Maine Department of Education’s announcement Wednesday about its plans to help schools improve didn’t get as much statewide attention as its revelation last week of A to F grades for schools under a new performance grading system. Gov. Paul LePage wasn’t at this week’s news conference, which was held in a smaller venue and with less fanfare. But the substance of what was discussed was just as, if not more, important.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen explained the series of steps the department will take to assist struggling schools. Those steps include soliciting feedback from school leaders to understand how the department can better support individual districts and then develop plans to provide technical or professional development. The department also wants to connect schools facing similar challenges so they can better share resources. The proposals are sensible.
But the LePage administration has endangered its chances that these plans will succeed. It’s unclear whether local school leaders will be willing to devote the effort needed, especially in the aftermath of the flawed grading system, which was not developed with local buy-in, and on which the improvement plans are, in part, based.
Adding to the tension, LePage has proposed an education reform bill, LD 1510, that expands upon aspects of federal law. The most controversial component of the legislation would allow students to enroll in another school — and have their home district continue to pay the tuition and transportation costs — if their school fails to develop and carry out a successful school improvement plan.
This option already exists for students who attend Title I schools that don’t make “adequate yearly progress” — a designation under the federal No Child Left Behind Act — for two consecutive years. Students can transfer to a better-performing school within their district. LePage’s bill, however, would allow students to transfer to any school in Maine, not just in their district. And all schools would be subject to the school choice rule, not just those receiving Title I funds for low-income students.
Regardless of any potential benefits of school choice, LePage’s bill has little chance of being approved by a Democratic Legislature — or by school district leaders — and is harming important efforts to improve student learning. The same argument holds with another LePage-proposed bill, printed Thursday, which would, in part, let public funding flow to religious schools. It’s a waste of LePage’s political capital and the department’s credibility. If LePage wants to help schools improve, he should let Bowen focus on the work he outlined Wednesday.
That includes having department staff reach out to struggling districts to analyze school data and programming and identify local needs; use the feedback to craft plans for professional development; organize regional meetings to collaborate and discuss findings; and establish a webinar series on school improvement topics, such as studying the strategies of successful low-income schools.
The department also plans to convene a teacher advisory panel to meet with LePage regularly and provide him with feedback on how the state can help improvement efforts. It plans to connect schools across the state that face similar struggles so they can share ideas and learn from each other. Bowen plans to form a task force to study how schools can better use technology to improve access to professional development.
As long as these efforts focus on local needs and allow a level of flexibility, they should be helpful. But the work has already been undermined by the school grading system and some of LePage’s proposed legislation. If LePage and Bowen want local school leaders to work with them on improvement efforts, they’ll need to build back trust.