April 15, 2013

Democrats brand A-F grading system a 'scarlet letter' for schools

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

A proposed A-F grading system for Maine schools was one of the biggest policy revelations in Gov. Paul LePage's February State of the State address.

Since then, the Department of Education has said the system would not carry any official consequences for districts -- it would incorporate factors such as test scores, graduation rates and improvement in scores in order to show parents and taxpayers how schools are doing.

It's no surprise that Democrats, wary of most of LePage's proposed reforms and linked closely with the Maine Education Association, a teacher's union, oppose it.

Republicans have lampooned them, saying Democrats are impeding education reform on the whole.

In a news release Thursday, Democrats branded the proposal a "scarlet letter" -- after the title of the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne novel where the main character, a woman convicted of adultery, is shamed by being forced to wear the letter "A."

"I'm completely and unalterably opposed to this initiative," said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the Education Committee. "It could give the false sense that all is well at a school or it could wrongly shame a struggling but improving school."

All that stuck pretty close to Democrats' original thoughts on the proposal after the speech. In February, Democratic leaders called the plan "overly simplistic" and Rob Walker, executive director of the MEA, said, "We shouldn't rely on the latest gimmick to further stigmatize our kids."

But in a statement Thursday, House Republican spokesman David Sorensen said, "Schools grade our kids, and we should grade our schools."

"It seems Democrats would be happier with a (pass-fail) grading system, where every school gets a (pass) no matter what -- a trophy for everyone," he wrote.

LOBSTER LABOR STRUGGLE?

There's a fight brewing among lobstermen -- some of whom want to unionize and some who don't want them to.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association, the top industry trade group in Maine, which says it has 1,200 members, has launched a new website, lobsterunionconcerns.com.

"We worry that lobstermen are being sold a bill of goods. People join unions to bargain with their employer over better pay and working conditions," Genevieve Kurileck, a lobsterman from Stonington, said in a news release announcing the site. "But Maine lobstermen are independent businessmen and women, not laborers, so it's unclear who they would bargain with."

About 250 lobstermen have already joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM, according to a March 29 Bangor Daily News report.

But the union is taking an aggressive stance, according to the BDN, saying the association is too close to distributors and processors.

"It's just the way it is: You're beholden to the people who give you lots of money," the BDN quoted union organizer Joel Pitcher as saying at a recent meeting in Stonington. "We're gonna represent lobstermen 100 percent of the time and not take money from nonmembers. We'll be beholden to no one but lobstermen."

Pitcher is a familiar capital-area figure, but he's no lobsterman.

He's a Bath Iron Works ship-fitter from Jefferson who unsuccessfully ran for the Maine House of Representatives last year. During the campaign, he told the Kennebec Journal that he had no political experience, but he wanted to push back against what he called LePage's anti-union agenda.

ESQUIRE HITS LEPAGE

LePage showed up in Esquire, a men's magazine, Friday, but not because he sat for a photoshoot in a skinny tie.

Charles Pierce, a political blogger for the magazine, picked up a recent report from the Lewiston Sun Journal saying LePage pressured Department of Labor hearing officers to decide more unemployment-benefit cases in favor of employers. But Pierce didn't just stick to the controversy, writing a more blistering takedown of the governor than even his most ardent opponent likely could.

"This was like electing the guy who fills in on weekends on your local talk-radio station," Pierce wrote. "The man is a walking bowling ball bag full of idiot resentments and politics concocted from equal parts pure lunacy and the chain emails your crazy drunk uncle sends you after midnight."

LePage's political adviser, Brent Littlefield, jumped on Pierce in a comment on the page, calling the post "one of the most poorly researched, silly group of words ever to be associated with Esquire."

Littlefield went on to say the post confirmed his decision to cancel his Esquire subscription a few years ago.

SESSION'S OUT

The Maine Legislature won't be convening this week on account of April school vacation, so except for scattered committee work, the State House halls should be quiet as lawmakers plot their strategies for the rest of the session, which adjourns in June. The House of Representatives and Senate will be back in session again Tuesday, April 23.

Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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