AUGUSTA, Maine — A week and a half of tension that began to mount last week with the release of an A-through-F grading system for public schools culminated Friday evening with Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen attacking Senate President Justin Alfond for delaying action on a sweeping teacher evaluation plan that has been under development for more than a year.
Alfond freely admitted he held the measure up because he and other Democratic leaders wanted to see what education initiatives Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage would unveil late in the legislative session on the heels of what Alfond called months of secrecy around destructive education initiatives by the administration.
“I’ve talked to Senator Alfond a couple of times about this and I just haven’t gotten an answer,” Bowen told the Bangor Daily News on Friday evening after he released a bulletin on the subject. “The problem is that the phone keeps ringing from the education community and superintendents. They’re calling and saying ‘where are the rules?’”
At issue are rules the Department of Education developed for evaluating public school teachers and principals, a result of bipartisan legislation passed last year. There has been disagreement over the rules, particularly how much student progress should count toward a teacher’s evaluation. The rules, which are supposed to go into effect next year, require a public hearing and legislative approval.
“Because the governor and this commissioner have been so secretive and non-transparent with their education agenda, we felt it was only smart to ensure everything was on the table, like the A-through-F grading system, before we took up this bill,” said Alfond, referring to letter grades that the LePage administration gave all Maine schools last week. “We’re really glad we did that because we can now see so many elements of the department’s plans coming through.”
In addition to the grading system, LePage unveiled three bills this week that have already put Democrats, the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Management Association on the defensive. Those bills include LD 1529, which would lift the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the Maine Charter School Commission and allow low-income students school choice, both concepts that have long caused conflict between the two major political parties. The bill also would allow taxpayer money to flow to religious schools that meet the same requirements as other private schools.
LD 1524, also released on Thursday, would require the state’s public higher-education institutions to track which incoming students require remedial courses and then allow the Department of Education to reduce subsidies to the high schools the students came from by the cost of the remedial courses.
Those bills came a day after the release of LD 1510, which would allow the Department of Education to take aggressive actions against failing schools that don’t improve within two years, including revoking their “basic approval,” and allow their students free school choice.
Bowen said the teacher evaluation rules were given to legislative leaders seven weeks ago as of Friday.
“It’s frustrating when I can’t get a straight answer,” said Bowen. “In my two years here I haven’t seen a situation where a piece of legislation has been passed by the Legislature bipartisanly and we’ve gone forward with the public rulemaking process and then we can’t get an answer from leadership. We’ve never run into this before. I guess what we’re trying to do is have superintendents call their legislators.”
Alfond reacted with dismay to Bowen’s comments, especially since he said Democrats are generally supportive of the teacher evaluation system.
“This is the commissioner unfortunately following the governor and making everything political and everything into a lobbying effort,” said Alfond. “When it’s convenient for Commissioner Bowen to support education, he turns on the switch and when he wants to weaken the education system, which he has done repeatedly over the past week, he just throws a blind eye toward teachers and schools. It’s unfortunate that he is so political as a commissioner of education.”