Saturday, March 8, 2014
AUGUSTA — The Legislature has given state, higher education and local education officials plenty to work on this summer.
More assignments could be on the way, with some major education initiatives still pending as legislators prepare to reconvene May 15.
Several education-related bills that were approved by both the House and Senate have been placed on the Special Appropriations Table, where legislation that costs money awaits the review of the Appropriations Committee.
If the committee decides there's funding for the bills, they go back to the Senate for a final vote.
Bills on the table include initiatives to review the state's funding formula for schools, address bullying and change the way high schools grant diplomas.
The following is a roundup of nine key education-related bills and where they stand:
L.D. 958: Review of the state's funding formula for schools
Status: Appropriations table
The review would authorize the Legislature to commission an independent review of the Essential Programs and Services model that allocates state subsidies to school districts. A full report would be due by December 2013.
The model has been tweaked, including through a law last year that provided more support to rural school districts. Questions sometimes arise about the fairness and effectiveness of the formula, according to Department of Education spokesman Matthew Stone.
"We can continue addressing small parts of the funding formula, or we can really take an objective look at the formula and determine whether it's accomplishing what we need it to accomplish," Stone said.
The bill seeks $450,000 in appropriations to pay for the study.
L.D. 1003: Medicaid reimbursements for schools
Status: Enacted in an override of Gov. Paul LePage's veto
Federal law both requires schools to provide appropriate services to students with disabilities, and also reimburses schools for some of those services through Medicaid, which in Maine is called MaineCare. Because of changes in billing and processing of claims, Medicaid reimbursements to Maine schools dropped from $37 million in 2009-10 to $7 million the following year.
L.D. 1003 requires the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to work together to refine the state's MaineCare rules so schools can receive more federal funding for services they are required to provide.
"We really want to be able to bill for those services, if it's appropriate to bill for those services," said Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities. "Whatever we can bring in, that helps special education."
In vetoing the bill, LePage objected to the Legislature giving instructions to the executive branch. The veto override was the first in Maine in a decade.
L.D. 1237: Anti-bullying law
Status: Appropriations table
The bill was defeated at the end of last session because of concerns about cost and opposition from the Christian Civic League of Maine, which said that it would restrict students' right to free speech. The bill was carried over and amended to add First Amendment protections.
L.D. 1237 defines bullying and cyberbullying and requires school districts to adopt policies and procedures to respond to complaints of bullying. School districts also must report substantiated incidents of bullying to the Department of Education annually.
The fiscal note on the bill predicts a "significant, statewide" effect on schools.
L.D. 1422: Proficiency-based diplomas
Status: Appropriations table
The Department of Education is promoting a major overhaul in the way public schools deliver education, and changing high school graduation requirements is the first step.
L.D. 1422 repeals time-based components of Maine's graduation requirements. Starting in 2017, high schools would have to grant diplomas based not on course credits or years spent in school, but on demonstrated proficiency on specific topics and skills.
The bill initially failed to get the two-thirds vote it required for passage as an unfunded mandate. It was amended to allow the Department of Education to make small grants to schools to assist the transition, if money is available. That is expected to cost the state $1.9 million next year.
L.D. 1632: Ease limitations on double dipping
Status: Lost committee vote
A law that took effect last year limits the pay of public employees returning to work after retirement to 75 percent of their previous pay and prevents them from receiving health insurance. It affected more than 1,200 workers, 86 percent of whom worked for Maine school districts.
House minority leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, sponsored the bill to limit the law's application only to superintendents and principals, which is what she thought the original law would do. The Appropriations Committee recommended that the bill not pass, by a 7-4 party-line vote.
Republicans opposed the bill, and because they have majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, it appears unlikely to pass when the Legislature considers it this month.
That's disappointing to the Maine Education Association, said Executive Director Rob Walker.
"For our members who go through a life-changing event, divorce or death of a spouse, and have a need to return to work, they won't have access to health insurance, and will get paid 75 percent of what they're worth," Walker said.
L.D. 1854: Open enrollment
Status: Became law without LePage's signature
Members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee worried that L.D. 1854 came up too late in the session, without enough information available on the potential impact for schools and students. They turned the bill into a resolve that sets up a study committee and allows school districts to adopt mutual policies allowing students to transfer among those districts.
The original version of the bill would have allowed school districts to accept students from other districts, without requiring agreements between superintendents for individual students. State funding would follow students to the district where they enrolled.
The stakeholder group established by the resolve will develop a public school choice model that addresses concerns raised about transportation, impact on rural schools and access for students from low-income families or those with disabilities.
"There's a recognition of a need to expand school choice options for students," said Stone, the education department spokesman. "That will be delayed, but that delay will give us time to do what the Legislature asked us to do, which is to do more exploration into open enrollment programs."
L.D. 1858: Teacher and principal evaluations
Status: Signed into law by LePage
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has called L.D. 1858 the most important achievement of the legislative session because teacher quality has the most impact on student achievement of any in-school factor.
The law requires school districts to create comprehensive performance evaluations for teachers and principals. Districts will be able to make personnel decisions based on the evaluations and the effectiveness ratings they produce. The evaluations are required to incorporate student learning and growth data, but it hasn't been decided what that means.
The MEA supports the creation of rigorous, thorough evaluations. The union is worried, however, about limitations on appeals of poor evaluations, even after the bill was amended to protect teachers from "bad faith" evaluations.
"That was helpful," MEA Director Walker said. "It took a step in the right direction. It should have gone further."
L.D. 1858 also creates an alternative certification process for teachers and requires collection of data on teacher preparation programs.
L.D. 1865: Enhancing career and technical education
Status: Signed into law by LePage
The least controversial of LePage's education bills passed both chambers of the Legislature easily. It would require that regional career and technical education centers and the school districts they serve create calendars that have no more than five dissimilar days, a reduction from nine days.
The Maine Community College System, University of Maine System and Maine Maritime Academy also would have to adopt a process to evaluate career and technical education programs to determine how much college credit to award based on a student's completion of a program.
The fiscal note predicts "moderate, statewide" costs for school districts.
L.D. 1866: Public funding for religious schools
Status: Failed to pass
The bill from LePage proposed repealing Maine's prohibition on public funding for religious schools, which has been in place since 1981. Students living in communities with school choice would have been able to enroll in sectarian religious schools and have their home district pay a portion of the tuition, up to a state-defined maximum, as long as the religious school met certain standards.
L.D. 1866 was opposed by a majority of the Education and Cultural Affairs committee and failed votes in both the House and Senate. Opponents were concerned that the bill would erode separation of church and state, divert funding from public schools and not ensure equal access for students.
Susan McMillan -- 621-5645