AUGUSTA — Attorney General Janet Mills continues to raise doubts about whether she’ll sign off on Maine’s application for up to $75 million in federal funds aimed at education reform.

Mills on Monday told a panel charged with pre-approving at least one teacher evaluation model for school districts looking to use student data in performance evaluations that Maine law might not cut it when it comes to meeting the guidelines of the federal Race to the Top competition.

In Race to the Top, state attorneys general need to certify to the federal government that their states have no legal barriers preventing the use of student achievement data in teacher evaluations.

State law, “at a minimum, has to allow for that to happen, and there can’t be a barrier down the road,” Mills said. “That’s what the feds have put out there.”

Maine legislators last month passed a law meant to strike down that 20-year-old student data-teacher evaluation barrier. But the legislation formed the panel and charged it with pre-approving a slate of evaluation models school districts could use if they wanted to use student data in evaluations.

The panel includes representatives from the state teachers’ union — which pressed for the task force to be formed —   and groups representing superintendents, principals, school boards and special education directors.

Mills’ office has pointed out, however, that the April legislation doesn’t require that the panel approve any evaluation models using student data.

“This statute could well be construed as a barrier to doing what the feds told us to do,” Mills said Monday.

The doubts about Maine’s Race to the Top application come amid a push by the Obama administration to get more states and school districts to use students’ academic progress as an element in teacher evaluations and compensation.

The Maine panel working on teacher evaluation models has an initial May 14 deadline set by Gov. John Baldacci for approving at least one student data-based evaluation model. The Race to the Top application deadline is June 1.

But the group’s members on Monday raised concerns about reviewing and identifying at least one model by next Friday.

“We want to make a very thoughtful decision because this is going to have huge ramifications for students and educators in Maine,” said Linda Bleile, the Wiscasset Middle School principal and president of the Maine Principals’ Association. “For us to have to choose a protocol in 12 or 14 hours creates huge tension for us.”

Short of approving an evaluation method, Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said it should be sufficient if Maine can show it’s working toward approving and implementing evaluation systems that incorporate students’ academic progress.

“The barrier has been removed, which the attorney general needs to sign off on,” he said. “I just don’t think that we should be rushing through this process when we don’t need to.”

Still, Carrie Thurston, special education director in Unity-based School Administrative District 3, said it’d be unwise for the panel to ignore the attorney general’s advice and put off a decision on an acceptable teacher evaluation model.

“I don’t think anyone sitting around the table wants to invest that kind of time if we are going to do something that’s going to be a barrier,” she said.

The evaluation panel has one more meeting scheduled before the May 14 deadline. Afterwards, the panel will continue meeting until July 1, 2011, to review and approve additional evaluation techniques from which school districts can choose.

“This is about choice,” said Angela Faherty, the acting education commissioner.

 

Matthew Stone • [email protected]