AUGUSTA — The idea of scrapping or scaling back Maine’s proficiency based diploma law prompted a rare five hour-plus public hearing Monday, as scores of people testified on whether the six-year-old law should be delayed, significantly changed or simply repealed.

While some welcomed the shock of eliminating what has been a keystone education reform of the LePage administration, others said it would be wrong to undo years of work so quickly and so late in the legislative session. The bills to alter or repeal the diplomas were introduced last week.

“A last-minute and radical revision of current law is not the answer, and neither is totally abandoning the progress that has been made through years of hard work in our schools,” said Eileen King, the deputy executive director of Maine School Management Association.

“What we cannot do, and would never encourage our students to do, is give up because the work is difficult,” King told the members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

In recent days the committee has received hundreds of emails on the three bills, officials said.

The law, passed in 2012, says students earn a diploma after showing they’ve mastered specific skills. Instead of taking certain courses and earning credits, they must show “proficiency” in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

Local districts decide what “proficiency” means, and that’s part of the problem, critics say.

“The flaw is this: as long as Maine refuses to establish state assessments tied to state standards – instead leaving each school system to do that work – there will in reality be no meaningful state standard and local school districts will unintentionally but inevitably engage themselves in a race to the bottom,” Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeff Shedd said, speaking on his own behalf, not for the district. “It’s time to suck it up, be sane, and create Maine end-of-course assessments and then work with students who struggle. It’s not hard technically. It’s just hard politically.”

Since 2012 ,when the diploma law passed, school districts across the state have changed grading systems, altered the look of diplomas, changed class schedules and poured time and money into professional development and explaining it all to parents and students. Some schools already have started issuing the diplomas to graduates, while others have struggled.

The discussion started with just one bill, L.D. 1666, to extend the proficiency diploma deadline – the diplomas begin statewide with this year’s freshman class – by one year. But that bill led to an amendment to repeal the law altogether. Since the committee wanted a public hearing on the idea, it introduced L.D. 1990, which would repeal the law. The third option emerged when the Department of Education introduced L.D. 1898, which would narrow diploma requirements to state-dictated requirements in English and math.

State Board of Education member Amy Arata said her experience as a parent in the Gray/New Gloucester school district was so bad she pulled her children out of the public schools and placed them in private school.

“You have heard from those who staked their careers on (proficiency based education) who told you it was working great, or they need more time or money. No district had more time or money than mine and it still didn’t work,” Arata said, supporting the repeal effort as a citizen, not on behalf of the board. “Districts have done this for years and shown no improvement. Why force more districts to go through the time, the expense and the pain?”

The committee will have a work session on all three bills on Friday. During testimony and in emails, it was clear there are teachers, principals, superintendents and parents on all sides of the issue. Professional organizations also were mixed: the Maine’s teachers union (the Maine Education Association) supports extending or repealing the law, but opposes the department bill. The Maine Principals’ Association supports the department’s bill, but opposes the repeal effort. The Maine Curriculum Leaders Association opposes the repeal effort and the department bill.

DOE specialist Mary Paine said the vigorous debate over the diplomas “is a surprising and welcome opportunity. It’s a chance to be bold.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine

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