Gov. Paul LePage gestures while giving the State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 at the State House in Augusta.
AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to set up an A-to-F grading system to rank Maine schools was criticized by Democratic leadership as "overly simplistic" and not effective in helping improve schools.
"He has introduced what I think is a very contentious, very undetailed plan. I think it's going to be a distraction," Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday.
LePage made the announcement in his State of the State address Tuesday night, saying he was directing Education Commissioner Steve Bowen to set up the system.
More details about the plan emerged Wednesday.
A school's grade would be based on several factors, including test scores, graduation rates and improvement in scores year-over-year. The commissioner is currently working on how to combine and weigh those elements to come up with a single letter grade, spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.
"I think it helps parents and communities know how their schools are doing," Connerty-Marin said, calling a single grade a "good overview" of the school. The state plans to include information about the factors -- all public data, he said -- that went into calculating the grade.
Patrick Phillips, superintendent of RSU 23, which includes Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach, said the grading system was too simplistic an idea.
"I don't think those kind of simplistic, holistic evaluations of a school make much sense," he said. "I think it gives a false sense that we can actually say everything that needs to be said about a school in a single letter."
He said individual schools have different strengths and weaknesses, and those are currently evaluated by national Adequate Yearly Progress reports mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"I think the current system allows us to draw distinctions between schools," he said.
Phillips said he is "all in favor" of looking at schools and students in more complicated ways, not simply through a letter grade system. He said a wide range of indicators need to be considered to accurately reflect how schools are doing.
Phillips also expressed frustration with the governor pushing for higher expectations while at the same time cutting funding. He said the RSU may have to cut 10 percent to 15 percent of its teachers if the governor's budget is passed.
"I'm more than happy to increase expectations on schools, but I'm not very happy to try to do so while cutting our budget by 10 percent," he said.
The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative launched by LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools and clashed mightily with school unions.
Since he took office, the state has opened to charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan. He has also unsuccessfully proposed school choice efforts and diverting public funds for religious schools.
Several members of the Legislature's Education Committee, including Republicans, had questions about how the grading system would work and whether it would help improve schools.
"It's a very simplistic way of looking at our schools," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, Senate co-chair of the committee.
"The governor said he was passionate about education and that's great. So are we. But we have concerns about the ways he's thinking about implementing education policy," Millett said.
The grading system could be in place as soon as this fall, and would be used for all public schools, including charter schools. It would not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools. It remained unclear whether town academies would be included, Connerty-Marin said.
"I'd like to hear more about it. I think we're Americans and we like to grade things," said Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, adding that it's a challenge to rank schools because of the subjective nature of quantifying the quality of work from a student, teacher or administrator, compared to test scores, for instance.
"If it's something to improve and support students and schools, then I'm for it all the way," McClellan said. "But it's complicated."
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, said a letter grade on a school would have a ripple effect, particularly since residents and businesses looking to relocate consider the quality of local schools when making a decision.
"It opens up a discussion because when someone is going to come move to Maine, the schools are one of the things they are looking at," Langley said. "How do we currently answer that question?"
Many real estate companies and outside groups like to rate schools, or put a letter grade on a school, but people are unclear about how they get their results, Connerty-Marin said. That uncertainly is one of the reasons the administration wants its own ranked system.
But a grade could just serve to "shame" a school or the students in it, said Rob Walker, the executive director of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers.
"We know where the problems are and we should focus on improving schools," Walker said. "We shouldn't rely on the latest gimmick to further stigmatize our kids."
Maine School Management Association Director Connie Brown criticized the plan and questioned the point of assigning a grade.
"Is this to embarrass the schools?" she asked. "I don't see any good coming out of this and I don't see how this is going to help schools."
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: