April 25, 2010

Candidates for governor aiming to fix education

Seven Republicans and five Democrats in the gubernatorial primary outline their priorities.

By MATTHEW STONE and SUSAN M. COVER Kennebec Journal

Maine's public schools are cutting positions and programs to plug budget holes as they plan for the 2010-11 academic year.

Next year, school officials will be doing the same thing, but without the benefit of nearly $60 million in federal economic stimulus money pumped in this year.

At the same time, schools' fixed costs -- including salaries and health care costs built into negotiated contracts -- are rising. And costly special education services are consuming a greater percentage of school budgets.

It seems like the perfect storm of challenges for Maine's next governor.

Conditions call for more than just trimming around the edges and adding furlough days, said David Flanagan, former Central Maine Power Co. chief executive and former independent candidate for governor.

"The overwhelming challenge is how to bring education spending under control and refocus it toward better outputs, both in scores and in the number of kids actually benefiting from a K-12 education," said Flanagan, who led a task force last year charged with recommending ways to streamline Maine's university system.

The state's performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress has slipped in the past decade compared with other states, according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

The state's graduation rate -- 84 percent during the 2007-08 school year -- and the percentage of those graduates continuing their education -- 72 percent of 2005 graduates -- suggest schools aren't reaching substantial numbers of students, Flanagan said.

"Existing mechanisms don't work for an awful lot of people," he said.

The five Democrats and seven Republicans who will appear on the June 8 gubernatorial primary ballot have words of praise for what Maine schools have achieved, but acknowledge that improvements are needed.

The candidates agree that Maine's economic health depends on the state's schools graduating more students prepared to enroll in college. Some would-be governors say programs such as Jobs for Maine Graduates, aimed at dropout prevention and transitioning students to life after high school, need to be replicated throughout the state.

By and large, the Republican candidates think charter schools should be part of the mix. Democrats -- save for Rosa Scarcelli -- aren't so sure.

The federal government is pushing states and school districts to adopt performance-pay systems that compensate teachers based on their students' academic progress.

Democrat John Richardson is outright opposed to that. Others have varying degrees of enthusiasm for it. All think Maine's teachers must play a role in determining how they're evaluated, especially if their pay is on the line.

Most candidates said they'd do their best to meet the 2004 voter mandate requiring the state to fund 55 percent of education costs. The state will be at 48 percent, and slipping, starting in July.

But before Maine can meet that obligation, the candidates agree, schools must continue to work at operating more efficiently. 

Steve Abbott, R: The top education priority for Maine's next governor, Abbott said, has to be continuing to rein in K-12 spending. That must happen if Maine is ever to meet its 55-percent education-funding obligation, he said.

Maine might realize some of those efficiencies through continuing school district consolidation. But the consolidation effort has to be more focused on reaping savings from regionalizing school administration rather than closing schools, Abbott said.

"The priority has to be dollars in the classroom, and not dollars in administration," he said, adding that school closures are a local decision.

Abbott said he'd support allowing charter schools in Maine as part of a "framework where we promote innovation and flexibility."

He also favors allowing the Maine Education Association to play a role in determining how teachers are evaluated using student data. "I think that they can add ideas and experience," Abbott said.

(Continued on page 2)

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