Dismantling Maine schools through grading and 'choice'

At last, via a November 25 memo from Commissioner Bowen to Governor LePage, we have plain insight into the Governor's plans for Maine schools.

This greatly aids in understanding why the Governor never misses an opportunity to claim that Maine schools, still by most measures among the best in the nation, are 'failing' and why he was eager to release a grading system that suggests to the public that half Maine's schools are unsatisfactory.

Preparing the Governor's next budget, Commissioner Bowen proposed "Funding to put an Office of School Accountability Into place to parallel the legislation we’ll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools."

In April, the Legislature's Education Committee received a document from the Department of Education identifying a $3 million initiative identified by identical language. But when this concept immediately raised committee members' eyebrows, the Department, with evident embarrassment, withdrew this as a 'typo' and recharacterized the initiative as being in support of struggling schools.

But the Department offered no explanation either of what measures would be used in defining "struggling" or what criteria the Department would use to disburse the funding. So the majority of the Education Committee voted to decline the initiative.

Now that the November 25 memo has become public, we get a fuller picture of what the Governor's and Commissioner's vision. Here, directly transcribed, Commissioner Bowen explains:

Issue: School accountability

The biggest step by far would be to authorize some kind of takeover of a school by the state.

We do not have the authority to do that under current law. What we could do is propose legislation that takes a school out from under the authority of the school district and puts it under state control. We have some models out there like this — Louisiana and Tennessee, for instance — so we have some models to look at. I don’t know if we have the votes for something like this with the legislature we have coming along, but I think we should push for some kind of consequence for schools that fail to improve.

A step that is not quite as dramatic as a state takeover would be to allow students in failing schools to have school choice. We could try to add that in, but again, I don’t know if we have the votes.

So the real question is, how hard to you want to push on this? Let me know. Accountability is a good issue politically, I think.

and

Issue: School choice

We need to come up with a school choice bill for this session, what do you think about thefollowing concept? (It also connects to the issue around what to do with Good Will Hinckley)

Goal: expand school choice opportunities for students by overcoming barriers to choice options.

Existing choice options and barriers to them:

  • Charter schools. Barriers: residential/transportation costs for some students.
  • Homeschooling. Barriers: Time and cost for parents and families.
  • Supt. Transfers. Barriers: Supt’s sometimes block them, transportation costs for parents.
  • Town Tuitioning. Barriers: Only in some towns, parent costs for non-approved schools.

Core issue — We have lots of choice options, but money not opportunity, is a barrier. Money would create far more choice options for students, especially low-income students

Bill concept — “The Choice and Opportunity Fund”

  • Fund created in statute, in GPA. (This is how we redirect the Good Will Hinckley money while still allowing GWH to access it - through the students)
  • Available for low-income students only. We will set certain income guidelines
  • Can be used for the following purposes:
    • Fund some amount of transportation costs for students traveling to school outside their home district.
    • Fund a certain amount — based on some statewide average or something - of residential costs for low income students to attend a school (public, private or charter) that is outside a set commuting range (x number of miles) and which parents can demonstrate uniquely meets the needs of the student (this could fund residence programs at GWH, for instance)
    • Fund tuition to approved private schools for students that do not live in town tuitoning towns. (Supt. agreements cannot be made with private schools)
    • Provide funds to low-income homeschoolers, to be used for teaching materials, etc.
    • Other?

Let us know what you think of this approach. It is a kind of voucher approach that builds on what we have for choice options already. We could add in that it could be used for religious schools as well. We would have to find budget space for this and do rules governing the program, so would take a little bit of time to work out, but I think the low-income element makes it a good approach politically.

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...And there you have it.