March 11, 2012

Our View: Education bills are making a late appearance

Waiting until the last month of a two-year session doesn't bode well for reform.

A month ago, we welcomed the news that Gov. LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen had rolled out their education reform agenda.

click image to enlarge

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, left, and Gov. Paul LePage address students and educators on state education policies at the Somerset Career Technical Center in Skowhegan last month.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

At the time, we noted that some of the elements of the plan were likely to be controversial – such as using public money to pay tuition at religious schools – but noted that there were enough positive elements in the proposals to warrant a vigorous debate.

Now, with the statutory adjournment date less than a month away and the leadership's deadline for finishing all committee work at the end of this week, we wonder if there is time for that debate to take place in any meaningful way.

The Education Committee is scheduled to hold public hearings and work sessions on the bills between Tuesday and Thursday, competing for time and attention against a full agenda of weighty issues. That's a tall order for a very busy Legislature that already had much on its plate.

This is hardly the first time in Maine history that an important bill was produced at the last minute and committee work was shortchanged, but that doesn't mean that this is a good way to do legislative business.

The questioning and negotiations that make up the committee process create a better legislative product and laws with fewer unintended consequences. What the administration has set up is a hasty process that appears to be set up for a partisan cram-down.

Whether, as the administration's critics charge, this was an intentional effort to limit debate, or just a reflection of how long it took a new group of officials to get their acts together, it doesn't really matter. Either way, the public's ability to influence the laws that will directly and profoundly affect them is compromised.

This didn't have to happen. Large parts of these bills are copied from laws in other states, requiring little legislative craftsmanship. Bowen had been an advocate for conservative education reform from his post at the Maine Heritage Policy Center before coming to office. The administration shouldn't have had to wait until the final days of the second session of the Legislature to begin working on this legislative agenda.

The public won't be well-served by this approach, regardless of the outcome. The Education Committee would be well-served to cull this ambitious agenda to only the items that can get the amount of attention they require, and let the administration reintroduce the controversial elements next year.

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