November 17, 2019
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Democrats continue support of school ranking system to replace controversial A-F scale

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth

AUGUSTA, Maine — The prospect of creating a new school ranking system to replace the one unveiled by the Department of Education earlier this month advanced to the full Legislature on Wednesday without any Republican support.

Democrats on the Education Committee banded together in support of LD 1540, An Act to Fix and Improve the System Used to Evaluate or Rate Public Schools in Maine, which faces an uphill battle that could well include a gubernatorial veto.

The concept of creating an A-through-F grading system for all public schools in Maine was first voiced by Gov. Paul LePage during his State of the State Address in February. That system was unveiled earlier this month, triggering protests from educators and legislative Democrats who said it does more harm to Maine schools than good. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and many Republicans framed the system as heightening accountability for schools, particularly the low-scoring ones. About 75 percent of Maine schools received a C or below.

At the core of criticisms was the argument that the system relies too heavily on standardized test scores, which Democrats said would be addressed through LD 1540, a bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who co-chairs the committee.

“We don’t think it is an appropriate way to measure our schools,” said Millett of the A-F grading system, during committee debate Wednesday. “I think it’s notable that, at least from my perspective, there are schools out there that do not support this current system.”

Millett’s bill calls for the creation of a task force made up of educators, parents and students, which would develop a new ranking system for legislative approval next year. The new system must take into account student progress; rates of students who pursue higher education or serve in the armed forces; socioeconomic data including poverty and special education eligibility; attendance and graduation rates; and interviews with parents, teachers and students.

Millett said she hoped the committee could come to a bipartisan agreement, but it was clear early in the discussion that several Republicans opposed changing the grading system. Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee’s House chairman, sought to end the debate about various amendments to the bill if everyone had their mind made up anyway.

“If we’re going to go out with a split vote, I don’t see any point in making changes to the bill,” said MacDonald.

Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, supported the measure.

“I still personally think A through F is a cruel way to grade our schools,” said Daughtry. “This is something we need, which is a more comprehensive way to grade our schools.”

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he was considering voting with Democrats if they would agree to Millett’s proposal to suspend the A-through-F grading system while the new one is developed, though he didn’t in the end.

“What I feel I could support is some type of study group that comes back and makes a recommendation to us next year, but not any type of hold on what we’re already doing,” said Pouliot. “I don’t think there’s anything to gain from stopping it.”

Some lawmakers said the grading system has already accomplished part of its goal: causing discussions about school quality.

“Because of the grading system, we’re having this discussion,” said Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais.

That discordant discussion will resume when the full Legislature considers the bill.

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