April 11, 2013

LePage proposes $3 million school-oversight office

But the administration says it does not plan to take over failing schools, as mentioned in a document.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A LePage administration plan for making schools accountable for their performance is raising concerns for teachers and some lawmakers.

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The proposed Office of School Accountability, to be funded by a $3 million appropriation, is included in Gov. Paul LePage's two-year budget for the Department of Education.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

But a Department of Education budget document that refers to legislation that would authorize the state to "take over failing schools" is inaccurate, the administration says.

The proposed Office of School Accountability, funded by a $3 million appropriation, is in Gov. Paul LePage's two-year budget for the Department of Education.

The proposal surfaced on Tuesday, when Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen gave lawmakers a document that detailed part of the proposed education budget.

The document included a request for $3 million for "funding to put an Office of School Accountability into place to parallel the legislation we'll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools."

Bowen told Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram, a member of the Legislature's Education Committee, that the department would provide additional details later.

The related legislation was not introduced Wednesday. Education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the language in the document distributed by Bowen was in error.

"There are a lot of ideas and a lot of language that get floated," Connerty-Marin said. "I'm not sure how that got in there, but (taking over) struggling schools is not the plan."

The actual plan, he said, is to establish a division in the education department to help struggling schools by providing state-level guidance and coaching to administrators.

He said the initiative would be similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program. The state uses the program now to identify low-performing schools and then provides assistance.

While the wording of the initiative caused concern, some members of the Education Committee accepted the administration's explanation.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said the proposal seems "benign and commendable" but questions remain about how the education department would define and identify struggling schools.

"I'm curious about what sort of discretion (the department) has," said Hubbell. "All I've heard is that they have discretion."

Hubbell said the mention of taking over failing schools is a sensitive topic.

Connerty-Marin said the department hasn't established the criteria yet for defining struggling schools.

LePage has said he intends to create a system for evaluating school performance and assigning each school a letter grade, from A to F.

That proposal, coupled with the language in the budget document, raised concerns Wednesday for the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union.

"When we start using a grading system and we start using words like 'taking over public schools' or closing down challenged schools, that raises an obvious red flag for us," said Lois Kilby-Chesley, the union's president.

Kilby-Chesley said other states have deemed schools ineffective, then taken them over and fired administrators, staff members and teachers.

That happened at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in 2010. The school was deemed chronically underperforming by the state's education commissioner. Reform efforts came to a head when the school superintendent embraced a federal incentive that called for firing 93 staff members.

The action, endorsed by the Obama administration, triggered protests by teachers. Later, an agreement between the union representatives and the school district led to rehiring the fired staff in exchange for additional teacher evaluations and other performance measures.

The situation was considered a test case for new education reform efforts that states are considering to gain federal dollars.

The LePage administration has embraced some of those reforms, including school accountability measures.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: School accountability

Should the state create an Office of School Accountability that would let it take over "failing schools"?



View Results


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