AUGUSTA – Top Democrats refuse to say how long the Party has been working on their school evaluation system or how that system will work, but said Wednesday their plan is definitely better than the Governor’s.
Sen. Rebecca J. Millett (D-Cumberland) and Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay), co-chairs of the Education Committee, announced during a State House press conference that Democrats intend to present a proposal at some point in the future to assess – not grade – Maine’s schools according to a yet-to-be-determined formula that will be devised by an undefined group of “stakeholders.”
While the ostensible purpose of the press event was to present an alternative to A-F school grades Governor Paul R. LePage presented last week, Democrats were instead focused on attacking the governor.
“Time and again, Governor LePage’s words don’t match his deeds,” said Millett.
She said the governor has chosen to make education reform a priority of his administration for political reasons, not because he wants to improve Maine’s education system. “Over the last two years the governor has chosen education as a politically divisive problem,” she said.
“His A to F grading system is flawed. It shames, it stigmatizes, and it’s arbitrary,” she said. “It seeks to embarrass students, teachers, schools, and frankly our communities, rather than encourage, incentivize and actually help underperforming schools do better.”
Said Millett, “We hope to be able to put together a stakeholder group that will work on a performance review system,” adding Democrats hoped to have a bill ready for next session.
Rep. MacDonald said Maine’s students and parents, after just one week, have unanimously rejected the governor’s grading plan. “Governor LePage continues to put Maine’s schools last,” said MacDonald.
“He’s underfunded our schools in his budget by $39 million,” said MacDonald, repeating a frequent claim of his Democratic colleagues that the governor has cut funding for education.
The information distributed to members of the press regarding the Democratic plan, An Act to Fix and Improve the Grading System of Public Schools in Maine, was as scattered and non-committal as the press conference itself. The information sheet, which contains no complete sentences, states: “Concept: Before the Department of Education or the Governor’s Office, the Department of Education shall develop a an (sic) evaluation system that includes stakeholders in the process”.
According to Democrats, “The evaluation system must include:
- Accurate measures of student progress over at least 5 years
- Interviews with parents, school board members, teachers, and other education leaders about the overall school climate and environment
- College attendance and attainment rates over at least 5 years, including enrollment in the US Armed Forces
- Peer group comparisons based on characteristics like special education, free and reduced price lunch, and ELL rates
- Attendance rates
- Evaluation of graduation rates based on 95% graduation, not 100%
- More substantive rule making
- Evaluation of performance targets, not penalization for student participation rates in standardized tests.”
According to Democrats, “The evaluation system will not include:
- A bell curve”
After the making their speeches, Millett and MacDonald took questions. The Maine Wire asked a simple question: How long has the Majority been working on their grading system?
At the conclusion of the press conference, a Channel 8 reporter reiterated the question, noting that it was “fair.” Yet again, the Democrats refused to answer.
After the press conference was disbursed, The Maine Wire asked MacDonald again, how long have Democrats been working on their plan. Again, he declined to answer, as a Democratic staffer herded him away.
For LePage and other Republicans, the Democrats attempt to evaluate schools is simply too little, too late.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said the Governor did extensive outreach to the lawmakers, school superintendents and the Maine Education Association, also known as the teachers’ union, throughout the grading process, but that these so-called stakeholders declined to work with the administration.
“The goal was to be transparent,” she said.
Regarding the concept draft the Democrats presented, Bennett said, “The Democrats haven’t done their homework. The Governor gives Democrats an ‘I’ for incomplete.”
Bennett said MacDonald’s claim that the governor has cut education funding was yet another “misinformed talking point.”
“Governor LePage has kept GPA [General Purpose Assistance] above the amount it was when he took office every year of his administration. If Governor LePage’s biennial budget is enacted as proposed, by the end of his first term the governor will have invested roughly $84 million in our schools over and above the baseline GPA amount when he took office,” said Bennett.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) said he was glad his Democratic colleagues have joined Republican efforts to evaluate schools, but that their ill-begotten effort comes too late.
“I appreciate the Democrats’ attempt to finally participate in education reform, but an 11th-hour piece of draft legislation is not what Maine schools need,” said Rep. Fredette. “I hope that in the future, Democrats will work with Republicans to improve education instead of attacking change and then introducing a unilateral proposal at the last minute.”
Assistant Minority Leader Alexander Willette (R-Mapelton) said he was disappointed that Democrats staged a press event to attack their colleagues.
“A press conference to attack Republicans does nothing to advance education reform,” said Rep. Willette. “We welcomed their ideas all along but they stubbornly defended the status quo,” he said.
“It is pure political showmanship to appear at the last minute with a plan that has no substance.”