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May 9, 2013

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Sen. Rebecca Millett, with Sen. Justin Alfond, left, and Rep. Mark Eves, announce a Democratic plan to grade Maine schools during a State House news conference Wednesday in Augusta.

Democrats propose their own evaluation plan for Maine schools

By Noel K. Gallagher
ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Democrats introduced their own proposal Wednesday for evaluating Maine's public schools, even as state education officials announced follow-up plans for schools that got D's and F's in the state's new A-to-F grading system.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D- Portland, described Republican Gov. Paul LePage's grading system, unveiled last week, as simplistic and "a real disaster."

"What you have is two contrasting plans," said Alfond, one of 23 legislators who gathered to announce the plan. "The governor has run out of bad things to say about our schools so he came up with this. He wanted the shock effect and that's what he got."

The co-chairs of the Legislature's Education Committee, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, are leading the Democrats' effort. They said a group of stakeholders will determine what elements would go into the formula.

"(LePage's) A-to-F system is flawed," Millett said. "It seeks to embarrass teachers, schools and our communities."

Among the elements in their proposed evaluation process are: attendance and graduation rates, including military service; interviews with parents, teachers and school board members; and peer group comparisons based on characteristics such as free and reduced lunch rates -- an indicator of poverty levels -- and special education.

LePage and Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen announced the A-to-F grades for the schools last week, and critics immediately attacked them as unfair. The system is based largely on standardized test scores in math and English, students' growth and progress, and graduation rates for high schools. More than a dozen other states use similar grading systems.

MacDonald called it a system of "shame and blame."

"Gov. LePage has misplaced priorities. He has put students last," MacDonald said.

Republicans criticized the Democrats' plan on Wednesday. "An eleventh-hour piece of draft legislation is not what Maine schools need," said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport.

Also Wednesday, in a news conference timed to begin right after the Democrats unveiled their plan, Bowen announced a plan to help schools that got D's and F's last week, perhaps through a $3 million "school accountability" fund proposed in the governor's state budget.

Bowen said he is creating a "strategic school improvement support center" in the department, to manage a targeted, cohesive approach to provide the department's resources to those schools.

Under that model, for example, the department might identify a group of elementary schools that need help with fourth-grade math and work with them as a group, instead of individually.

Bowen said the department will contact all D and F schools by the end of this school year, do an initial analysis of school data, review each school's programming and help identify the school's "more pressing technical assistance or professional development" needs.

"We're going to start right away," he said. "It's a long list of stuff and it's going to fundamentally change the work this department does."

The department will convene nine regional meetings over the next three months for representatives from each of the D and F schools, and create individual action plans for those schools during the 2013-14 school year.

Bowen also said LePage wants to create a teacher advisory group to meet with the governor on an ongoing basis and serve as an advisory board on state-led school improvement efforts. LePage has been hostile to teacher unions and public schools during his two-plus years in office.

One criticism of the grading system, and the administration in general, has been that schools have dwindling resources. Democratic lawmakers have criticized LePage's $6.3 billion state budget proposal for the next two years for flat-funding education. while diverting money to other initiatives.

Bowen said the efforts announced Wednesday would use the staff and resources within the department. When asked whether schools would get more money, he said he thinks they can improve with the resources they have.

"It's going to take a lot of convincing to make me think they can't do it with what they've got," Bowen said.

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com



Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal

The co-chairs of the Legislature's Education Committee – Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, introduce a Democratic plan to evaluate schools during a news conference on Wednesday at the State House.

Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen announces a plan to help schools that were given failing grades by the LePage administration, at a news conference Wednesday in the Cross Building in Augusta.



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