AUGUSTA — A bill to create one more layer of appeal on decisions about whether students can be placed in schools outside their districts won final passage Tuesday in the Legislature.
Current law allows for parents to petition their local superintendent if they want to enroll their child in a school across district lines. If the superintendent denies the request, the parent can appeal directly to the state’s education commissioner, who has the final say.
Initially the bill created a sharp divide between the Department of Education and Democratic lawmakers, but it was amended in a compromise that found 34-0 support in the Senate on Tuesday. It had been approved without a roll-call vote in the House on Thursday.
L.D. 530, sponsored by Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, originally sought to eliminate the line in state statute that renders the education commissioner’s decisions “final and binding.” Replacing that would be language that read, “The commissioner may modify the transfer decision only upon a written finding that the student may not have the opportunity to receive the benefits of a free public education without the transfer.”
That drew sharp opposition from Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who has used his authority to overturn dozens of local decisions about whether students should be allowed to transfer out of their district.
At a March hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee, Bowen called the original bill “the most significant threat to existing school choice options I have seen in 10 years of involvement in legislative affairs.”
“This is a profoundly flawed bill that essentially eliminates a long-standing school choice option that has been available to all families, but most especially those families who can afford no other option when it comes to finding an educational setting that best meets their child’s needs,” he said.
As a compromise, the Education Committee amended Nelson’s bill to allow the education commissioner to weigh in on local decisions when petitioned, but it also allows for the commissioner’s decision to be reviewed by the State Board of Education, if the school district or student’s family wishes.
The amended bill approved Tuesday now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature or veto.
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her organization has been concerned about the pattern established under Bowen of the state overturning local superintendents’ decisions about student placement. The practice creates uncertainty for districts when it comes to enrollment n u m b e r s , which in turn affects budgets, and it usurps local control, she said.
B r o w n said that historically, only a small percentage of the superintendent decisions were appealed to the commissioner and, when that did happen, the commissioner often sided with the local district. During this school year, however, Bowen has overturned about 95 percent of local decisions.
Since Bowen took over in early 2011, department data show that student transfers approved by superintendents have dropped off and the commissioner has been overturning transfer denials at a higher rate, particularly this school year.
In this school year and last, superintendents approved only about 3,000 transfers, compared with about 5,400 in the previous two years.
And in the past two school years, Bowen has fielded 135 appeal requests from students, denying only 17 of them. This school year he rejected only three out of 103.
“We believe that is reflective of the commissioner’s beliefs on school choice,” Brown said. “But last session, a school choice bill failed in a Republican-led Legislature and a similar bill failed this year.”
Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the department, said in an email that Bow-en’s decisions reflect “what is in the best interest of students, whether it’s exposing the student to different academic programming, moving them into a healthier school environment or ensuring access to (after-school) programming and care so they don’t come home to an empty house.”
Brown said the amended version of L.D. 530 is a good compromise because it ensures that the final decision rests not with one person, but a board. The State Board of Education’s decision now would be considered “final and binding.”
The state board consists of nine members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Staff Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: [email protected]