May 26, 2020
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Students before politics? Not in an election year

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage (center) shares a laugh with Cony High School senior Michelle Zhang at the beginning of LePage's "Putting Students First" education summit in Augusta in March 2013. Speaking at the podium is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Education reform dominated Gov. Paul LePage’s first two years in office.

With Republicans in control of the Legislature in 2011 and 2012, LePage led the passage of Maine’s first charter school law, a proficiency-based diploma system and an educator evaluation program. He also implemented a controversial A-through-F school grading system with the intention of improving low-performing schools.

In 2014 and 2015, citing the need to let some of those initiatives take hold, LePage turned his attention away from education to some degree. But the Republican governor has said publicly in recent weeks that he will refocus on education during his final years in office.

Democrats, allied with the teachers union, have a much different education agenda.

The two sides can’t even agree on a public school bathroom policy, but both say they have the best interests of students at heart.

With unprecedented animosity between Maine’s executive and legislative branches — and an ideological gulf deepened by election-year politics — will any of the current rhetoric about strengthening Maine’s education system yield meaningful results?

LePage’s focus

LePage and his interim education commissioner, William Beardsley, declined to comment for this story, but the governor often lists what he sees as problems in Maine’s education system.

He has made easing student debt a priority. Maine students who attend four-year colleges graduate with an average of nearly $31,000 in debt, which is the sixth-highest average in the nation.

Let businesses pitch in. LePage hopes to spur employers to help pay off employees’ student loans by offering them tax credits. There is no formal proposal yet but past efforts to encourage employers to help their workers reduce student loan burdens have had limited success.

Bringing businesses into the debt fray is a concept that has been gaining some support nationally. There’s a bill in Congress to that effect, and Maine already offers employers some level of tax credits for helping employees with debt through the Opportunity Maine program. The program lets employees claim a credit of up to $4,500 annually, but Maine Revenue Services reports no businesses have claimed the credit.

Offer no-interest student loans. LePage also wants to allow the Finance Authority of Maine to sell a $10 million bond so the agency can offer no-interest student loans with the state paying the interest. As with the tax credits, LePage has not offered a formal proposal.

While lawmakers await details, these proposals have not generated any significant opposition to date.

Some probable non-starters

Consolidate schools, again? LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that in addition to addressing student debt, LePage wants to consolidate public schools in some way, a concept he has been talking about for years.

Consolidating public school administrations was a focus of Gov. John Baldacci’s second term. Baldacci’s plan encountered fierce opposition from proponents of local control and was significantly watered down before enactment. It fell far short of producing Baldacci’s anticipated savings and efficiencies.

LePage regularly complains that Maine has too many school superintendents, but he has not laid out a plan to reduce that number — and a constitutional requirement that school systems employ superintendents poses a hurdle.

Returning to this concept now — with the Legislature approaching the halfway point of this year’s session — is unlikely. That brings up another issue: Will LePage delay the presentation of major education reform initiatives in hopes that the November election will yield a more cooperative Legislature?

Count on it.

Raising teacher pay. Last week, a majority of the Legislature’s Education Committee endorsed a bill that would increase the minimum annual public school teacher salary in Maine from $30,000 to $40,000. The bill is estimated to cost state government at least $1 million a year — and some say that figure is low.

In the second year of the legislative session, that money isn’t readily available. Even if the proposal makes it through the Legislature and LePage — who has said he supports increasing teacher pay if Maine educators agree to consolidate under a single, statewide labor contract — it will likely die from lack of funds.

Changing the funding formula. Lawmakers have been grappling with improving the school funding formula for years, with hopes of making it more equitable between urban and rural districts. This work goes on every year with an understanding among most lawmakers that the state cannot afford to pay 55 percent of the total cost of K-12 education, as mandated by a 2004 statewide referendum.

For some, especially Democrats, providing state aid to Maine’s public charter schools in a way that eases the financial hit on traditional public schools remains another priority.

The Legislature is unlikely to enact major school funding changes this year, though voters could. In November, Mainers will likely vote on a citizen-initiated ballot question that would place an income tax surcharge on household income over $200,000 a year. Stand up for Students, the group backing the initiative, estimates that the tax would generate $157 million per year that would be earmarked for classroom education. The secretary of state still must validate the signatures submitted for this initiative.

School and teacher evaluations. Under LePage, Maine has implemented teacher and principal evaluation systems as well as a school quality grading system that has been on hiatus since 2014. Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the teachers union, said Thursday that Beardsley told her last week that the school grading system is likely to be mothballed for another year because, among other factors, Maine is in the midst of implementing a new standardized test for students.

There is support for improving both of those assessment programs, but Maine and many other states are in a holding pattern while the federal Department of Education sets rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was enacted last year to replace the No Child Left Behind Act.

Increasing general purpose aid for education. As part of the current State House fight over conforming with federal tax code changes approved by Congress last year, Democrats are attempting to attach a $23 million increase in state aid to local districts. Primarily because of property tax base revaluations and enrollment decreases, many districts face funding and service cuts this year.

LePage and some Republicans accuse Democrats of playing politics by linking the tax conformity bill to an “unrelated” education spending increase.

But some Democrats argue that tax conformity and school spending are related because the LePage administration proposed using casino revenues that are supposed to flow to schools to pay for corporate tax breaks in the conformity proposal.

Legislative leaders have been negotiating for weeks, suggesting an impasse that will likely result in compromise. That means adherence to tax conformity and, possibly, some new funding for schools.

Where progress is likely

One of the major initiatives underway for years in Maine public education is implementation of a proficiency-based diploma and standards-based learning. Those are protracted, complex and weedy processes that don’t receive much attention outside education circles, but they’re a big deal. After full implementation, every Maine public school graduate is supposed to have essentially the same academic abilities and accomplishments. And along the way, they’ll be striving for the same benchmarks.

That’s tough. What should the standards be? Should they include just reading and mathematics or all subject areas? Should they be the same for students on college and noncollege tracks? What about special education students? And does this approach mesh with another major trend in education that emphasizes flexibility for students who learn in different ways?

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Education Committee, said there is emerging consensus and the real possibility that agreement on standards could be among this year’s few major accomplishments for K-12 public schools.

What about the future?

It depends on elections. If Republicans maintain or increase their majority in the Senate and take a majority in the House, they will partner with LePage to implement new reforms and Democrats will be nearly powerless to resist them. One issue that could come up in a Republican-controlled state government is lifting the 10-school cap on charter schools in Maine. Others could be a new school consolidation effort or perhaps the implementation of a statewide labor contract for educators.

Democrats need veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate to regain significant control of the education agenda, at least as long as LePage is in office. Democratic majorities would come with campaign support from the teachers union, which would expect Democrats to push back harder against LePage reform initiatives aimed at reducing the union’s say in education policy.

LePage is unlikely to nominate an education commissioner if Democrats win majorities in both chambers or if each party wins control of a single chamber, as is the case now. That would lead to more policy stalemates and continued leadership uncertainty, further exacerbated by federal changes likely to filter down from a new president.

The Stand up for Students initiative also looms large, with potential to spark another ideological battle over taxation and education spending during a budget-writing year.

Only one thing is certain: The next chance for any substantive education reform will happen in 2017, because 2018 will be another election year — with even higher stakes because Maine will elect LePage’s successor.


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