AUGUSTA — In a move that would unwind a signature education policy of the LePage administration, lawmakers on a legislative committee voted 9-3 late Friday to remove the requirement that districts must issue proficiency-based diplomas.

That means schools could choose to continue the diplomas or revert back to diplomas based on completion of course credits.

“I feel we’re threading the needle here. There are very passionate feelings on both sides of this issue,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who offered the amendment to L.D. 1666. “This allows (supporters of proficiency-based diplomas) to continue, allow them to be the leaders in their education community. … Meanwhile, just as we are respectful of those who like (the mandate), a significant number of people contacted us in opposition and I feel we need to be respectful of their concerns as well.”

LEPAGE VETO LIKELY

The bill now goes to the House, where its fate is uncertain. Already on Friday, there was speculation that if it reached Gov. Paul LePage’s desk, he would likely veto it. Many lawmakers said they wished they had more time to come up with a better proposal addressing the issues around the diplomas, but the session was close to ending. Several said they expect the issue to come back next session.

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee has been grappling with the issue for weeks, with three bills that would either delay, alter or repeal the law altogether. There have been hours of testimony, multiple work sessions and hundreds of emails pouring in, both in support and opposition to the diplomas.

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, particularly with deciding how to define “proficiency” at the local level.

Maine’s was one of the first proficiency-based diploma laws in the nation after Rhode Island, and similar policies are in place in New Hampshire and Vermont.

This year’s 13,500 freshmen are supposed to be the first class required to meet proficiency standards. Eight schools already use the proficiency-based diplomas, and several more are on track to begin issuing them this year.

On Friday, Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana told a Portland lawmaker the district would continue with proficiency-based diplomas no matter what the Legislature did. Other superintendents have said the same.

THREE BILLS EMERGE

In testimony, supporters warned that if the committee removed the mandate, it would have the effect of killing the proficiency-based diploma because it is a complicated issue and many people – from teachers to parents – can be resistant. But advocates said they believed the diplomas were better for students because they clearly spell out exactly what they know.

The discussion started with L.D. 1666, which originally would have delayed the proficiency diploma deadline by one year. But that bill led to an amendment by Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, to repeal the law altogether. That repeal option was broken out and introduced as its own bill, L.D. 1990.

A third bill emerged when the Department of Education introduced L.D. 1898, which would narrow diploma requirements to state-dictated requirements in English and math.

On Friday, the department and the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, offered new language that incorporated several elements of the other bills, from the state defining proficiency instead of local districts and the department offering model course descriptions and training resources to districts that need them.

That proposal was endorsed in the minority report out of the committee by three Republicans: Sens. Langley and Joyce Maker of Calais, and Rep. Phyllis Ginzler of Bridgton.

‘JOY AND PAIN’

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said she initially proposed delaying the diplomas because the committee “needed a long and hard look at, and discussion about, the diplomas. We certainly have had that,” she said Friday, before voting in favor of the amendment. She told department officials she hoped they would pursue the idea of providing districts with resources around proficiency-based diplomas.

Rep. Roger Fuller, D-Lewiston, who supported the vote, said there was both “joy and pain” in his vote.

“What we’ve been through these last three weeks has been an education,” he said. “But in taking this vote, what I clearly see is that so many districts have rationalized compliance on some misnomer on what is or what is not state law. This puts the responsibility for the diploma squarely where it belongs, on the school board and the superintendent. This is a great new beginning.”

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

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