February 6, 2013

LePage looking to require schools to pay for students' remedial college courses

Cost could run up to $700K for local school districts who graduate under-performing students

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- In a last-minute addition to his State of the State address, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday pitched a new idea that would cost Maine schools at least $700,000 a year.

Estimate cost of remedial proposal to local schools

Cony High School: $9,582

Gardiner Area High School: $8,181

Mt. Blue High School: $8,123

Hall-Dale High School: $5,970

Lawrence High School: $4,164

Messalonskee High School: $4,164

Oak Hill High School: $3,612

Maranacook Community High School: $2,447

Waterville High School: $2,322

Erskine Academy: $2,064

Monmouth Academy: $909

Skowhegan Area High School: $909

Winslow High School: $909

Winthrop High School: $909

Madison High School: $258

Richmond High School: $258

LePage, outlining a proposal that was not in his prepared remarks, said he will submit legislation requiring local schools to pay for the remedial courses their graduates take in college.

Remedial courses are aimed helping students who lack basic reading, writing and mathematical skills for introductory college courses. They cost the same as college-level courses but don't count toward degree requirements.

Taking remedial courses forces students, in order to graduate, to borrow greater amounts of money after student aid runs out. Students who take them are less likely to graduate, according to a recent report from the advocacy group Complete College America.

LePage said transferring the cost to school districts will create accountability for high schools that don't prepare students adequately.

"They went through public school; the job wasn't done," LePage said in his address Tuesday. "Now the parents, who are only making 80 percent of the national average in income, have to pay tuition to take it a second time."

After outlining his idea, LePage told legislators, "We'll see how much courage you have."

A law such as the one LePage has proposed is unprecedented, though the idea is not. The governor has talked about the idea before, and officials in other states have as well, according to Brenda Bautsch, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C.

However, "it has just been rhetoric at this point," Bautsch said.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday the legislation still is being written, and several details were not available.

It's not clear whether the proposal would apply only to students who enroll in college immediately after high school, or whether local schools also would be responsible for people who graduated years earlier. Also unclear is whether the legislation would apply to all colleges and universities -- public or private, in Maine or out of state -- though Bennett said equity is a goal.

States have paid more attention to the issue of remediation in recent years, Bautsch said. The economy has shifted more toward jobs that require post-secondary education, but state and family budgets are tights and student loan debt is squeezing both people who graduated and those who didn't.

School district representatives agreed it's a problem when high school graduates aren't ready for college or the workforce, but they said schools shouldn't be held entirely responsible.

"It's a two-way street," said Gary Smith, superintendent of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18. "I think education is a participation sport, and it requires both parties to be actively engaged. And if one or the other isn't following through, it won't always be the school system that failed."

In central Maine, graduates of Augusta's Cony High School had the highest remediation costs: at least $9,582. Gardiner Area High School and Mt. Blue High School in Farmington both topped $8,000.

Maine School Management Association Executive Director Cornelia Brown, who recently stepped down as superintendent of Augusta schools, said the idea seems to be less about accountability than punishing schools.

"I think that is not good public policy," she said. "I think that kids come to school in all sorts of readiness stages, and I think that they probably start at the university in varying states of readiness."

Remedial costs

Maine college freshmen actually need significantly fewer remedial classes than their peers in other states, especially at four-year colleges.

In the University of Maine system, 12 percent of freshmen enrolled in remedial courses last fall, compared to a range of 24 percent to 39 percent elsewhere in New England, according to U.S. Education Department data.

(Continued on page 2)

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