Adversity sometimes has a way of bringing out the best in people. That seemed to describe the final session of the 124th Legislature.

Faced with a difficult economy and yet another major shortfall in revenues, the Legislature was able to come up with sufficient cuts, another $300 million, to keep the state afloat.

As it did last year when faced with an even greater shortfall, the Appropriations Committee shaped a bipartisan consensus on the cuts, paving the way for a budget bill that passed both houses easily. Given Maine’s past budget history, rife with partisan bickering and last-minute drama, the way in which such significant shortfalls were handled in both years of this Legislature is noteworthy.

Full marks to the Appropriations Committee and, in particular, to its majority and minority leadership — Bill Diamond and Emily Cain for the Democrats and Richard Rosen and Sawin Millett for the Republicans.

The caveat here is that much was deferred and delayed to achieve “balance.” As Millett put it in his post-mortem, several of the fundamental problems that drive budget shortfalls remain to be addressed. This will fall to the next Legislature and next governor, and the task will be formidable.

The other committee whose work stood out in this session was the Utilities and Energy Committee, chaired by Barry Hobbins and Jon Hinck. They capped a very busy session by developing (with the assistance of a Special Committee on Maine’s Energy Future) an energy corridor bill that passed in last days of the session.

This bill sets out the guidelines that could lead to opening up cheaper power from Canada. In addition, they brought forward complex legislation that sets the framework for the development of offshore wind energy. The bill sets an ambitious goal of 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by the year 2030.

The committee also brokered an agreement with Maine Fiber Company to capitalize on federal stimulus money to provide high speed fiber optic coverage to much of rural Maine. This is a good example of private/public partnership in the cause of economic development.

The most disappointing committee this session was the Education Committee.

Under great pressure to produce something that might enable Maine to qualify for some of the $4.5 billion federal funds for education reform — the so-called “Race to the Top” competitive funding — the committee finally endorsed a trio of bills to address the issues that make Maine unlikely to get such funding. Most significant were the lack of charter school legislation and the prohibition of using student results as part of teacher and principal evaluation.

Here again the committee, under the usual pervasive influence of the Maine Education Association, came up with timid legislation where boldness was required.

Instead of charter schools, Maine will have “innovative schools” with none of the independence that a charter implies. Instead of allowing test results to be a part of teacher evaluation, Maine will have a panel of five stakeholders, one of which is the MEA, who must pre-approve any evaluation models before any Maine school district can use them.

In spite of a ruling from the Attorney General’s Office that this approach to evaluation may not meet the federal requirement for making student data a part of teachers’ evaluations, the measure was passed.

All of this is most disappointing and shows how far Maine has fallen from the ranks of leadership in education reform. Sixteen years ago, we were the first state to pass rigorous academic standards, the Maine Learning Results. We were leaders in technology for learning, as the first state to provide laptop computers for all seventh- and eighth-graders. Sixteen years ago, our students tested at the top rung of national testing.

Over that period, Maine has greatly increased spending for K-12 education, and we have precious little to show for it.

Our student ranking has fallen in national testing. We have not been able to expand laptops through high school, and Learning Results implementation is in limbo. Our inability to come up with a competitive application for Race to the Top funding is the latest blow to all that early promise.

We can say this about the 124th Legislature — in many ways it found a way to make virtue of adversity, balancing the budget and providing solid frameworks for future energy and economic development.

However, on the critical issue of K-12 education, the Legislature continues to bow to interests that too often stand in the way of improving education for Maine students.

Is there no leader out there willing to stand up and be counted on education?

 

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]