Maine (proposed voucher program)

The Maine Senate has rejected Gov. Paul LePage's bill that would have allowed state vouchers to be used in religious schools, wmtw, 4/1/12

posted Mar 31, 2012, 2:28 AM by Bill Duncan


AUGUSTA, Maine -

The Maine Senate has rejected Gov. Paul LePage's bill that would have allowed state vouchers to be used in religious schools.

Senators voted 24-8 against the bill Friday. It was rejected Thursday in the House by a vote of 84 to 59.

The bill sought to repeal a law that says only nonsectarian private schools are allowed to receive public funds for tuition purposes.

Democrats said the measure would have undercut public education by allowing public tax dollars to be used to send some children to private religious schools.

The education committee had recommended against the bill's passage.

Maine House rejects school voucher bill, AP, 3/30/12

posted Mar 30, 2012, 2:35 AM by Bill Duncan


March 30, 2012

AUGUSTA, Maine—A Senate vote is pending on Gov. Paul LePage's bill that would allow state vouchers to be used in religious schools.

Senators could vote as early as Friday on the bill, which was rejected Thursday in the House 84-59 .

......more at the link

LePage school choice proposals divisive, Kennebec Journal, 3/16/12

posted Mar 18, 2012, 8:22 AM by Bill Duncan


By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Representatives of public schools said Gov. Paul LePage's proposals to expand school choice would divert millions of dollars from struggling schools and create a two-tiered system of education in Maine.

At a public hearing Thursday, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the two bills would address inequity in the ability of families to choose the best schools for their children, even if those schools are in other communities or provide religious education.

"The school your children attend is determined by lines on a map, many of which, in this state, at least, were drawn centuries ago," Bowen said in support of L.D. 1854, which would create open enrollment in Maine.

Opponents of the legislation, however, said the two bills use public money to create an education system that would not provide equal opportunity to students with disabilities or those from low-income families.

L.D. 1854, "An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students," would allow school boards to open their schools to students from other districts without requiring agreements between superintendents for individual students.

For the purposes of state aid to education, students would be counted as residents of the public school district they attend, not the one where they live.

Private schools approved to receive public funding -- there are 28 in Maine, including the 10 town academies -- also could adopt open enrollment. The resident school district would pay tuition to the private school, up to a state maximum.

Open enrollment schools may limit the number of spaces in specific grades or programs, but they must use a random selection process to fill those spaces, with no regard to academic, athletic or other skill.

Parents are responsible for providing transportation to an open enrollment school unless the school decides to do so.

Several people testifying against the bill said it will harm small and rural schools, especially those near larger schools that can offer a wider range of educational programs.

A group of students who traveled from Hermon High School said they worry for the future of their school if L.D. 1854 passes.

"Instead of allowing students to choose one school over the other, we should make sure every school is good by providing the funding they need," senior Nash Roy said, "and allow students to receive an education in the community that has raised them."

Jack Wallace, a retired teacher from Brunswick, pointed to a study of Colorado's open enrollment system, which found that it may be increasing segregation among social classes and racial groups.

In Colorado, high-income students were most likely to use open enrollment, and to transfer to even higher-income districts, and white students were more likely to transfer from diverse districts to whiter ones.

Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities said the bill "creates a real threat to the rights of students with disabilities" because of apparent gaps in the services that open enrollment schools must provide.

Augusta School Board Chair Susan Campbell, testifying on behalf of the Maine School Boards Association, said open enrollment can create a downward spiral for struggling schools and provide an advantage to schools with more resources.

"They can skim off the highest achievers or the best athletes," Campbell said. "What they leave behind, however, is a weakened district that may not have the enrollment or financial resources to provide an adequate education."

Several people at the hearing spoke in favor of competition between schools.

"Competition is not a bad thing," said Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery, who teaches at Thornton Academy in Saco. "If this lights a fire under some schools to innovate a little more, or whatever, I think that could be a plus."

Biddeford resident Renee Morin said her son didn't have any choices when his elementary school did not recognize his giftedness. He dropped out and is now in jail on a drug charge.

"If you are truly a good local school, you will not lose students," Morin said. "If you don't like the grocery store, you can go to a different one. If you don't like a job, you can get a new one. Our children should be able to have the same choices."

One group that provided testimony in favor of open enrollment, the national school reform organization Students First, said Maine should limit eligibility for private schools to low-income students at low-performing schools and must hold the private schools accountable to the same standards facing public schools.

Religious schools bill

L.D. 1854 could magnify the potential impact of the other bill that was before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Thursday: L.D. 1866, "An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools."

The "certain schools" are sectarian religious schools, which have been barred from receving public funding since 1981.

By itself, L.D. 1866 would allow students from communities with school choice to attend religious schools, with the state paying at least a portion of the tuition, based on the same rules that govern the 28 nonreligious private schools now approved to receive public funding.

If both laws pass, religious schools could adopt open enrollment and receive public funding for students from any community in the state.

Bowen compared the proposal to the Cleveland voucher system upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The court ruled that the system did not violate the First Amendment's establishment clause because parents could use the vouchers for religious or secular schools.

"In the type of model before you, the government is not establishing anything," Bowen said. "Parent decides where student goes, and funding follows the student."

Bowen said he has not asked the Maine attorney general's office about the constitutionality of the proposal, but the office has not notified him of any problems.

Some legislators and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine questioned whether L.D. 1866 would pass the test set by Zelman.

The Maine bill would not give vouchers to parents, but have public schools pay tuition to religious private schools.

"My understanding of the Zelman case is that there is indeed a material difference in giving the money to parents, or having the school system sending the money to the school," said Rep. Mary Pennell Nelson, D-Falmouth.

Sister Rosemary Donohue, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools, said the Portland Diocese is not taking a position on L.D. 1866 because there are too many questions about the standards religious schools would have to meet.

The Rev. William Campbell, president of Cheverus High School, said he supports the bill because it would provide "some measure of financial relief" for students who attend religious schools. Leaders at Cheverus, he said, have not decided whether they would participate.

Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, said the bill would benefit families that have higher than average income, especially because there could be a gap of thousands of dollars between a school's tuition and the maximum provided by the state.

Like L.D. 1854, L.D. 1866 stands to divert money from public schools.

Lovejoy used the example of Cheverus, which has 126 students who live in Portland. City taxpayers pay more than $8,000 per pupil, so L.D. 1866 could transfer more than $1 million to Cheverus just for the students who are already there.

Other opponents of the bill questioned whether religious schools would be able to cherrypick publicly funded students rather than using the random selection process mandated for open enrollment schools.

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

Bangor Daily News: School choice bills risk widening quality gap, 3/13/12

posted Mar 14, 2012, 7:56 AM by Bill Duncan


Posted March 13, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.

Two of the governor’s education bills deserve to be defeated and a third should be amended. The two bills, which would take the “public” out of public education and put schools in the marketplace, have the potential to widen, not bridge the gap between good schools and bad schools. The third, implementing a standardized teacher evaluation system, is sound in theory but needs tweaking.

Gov. Paul LePage genuinely wants to improve public education in Maine. Though some of his agenda seems based in a resentment for public sector workers, most of his ideas about schools are not aimed at punishing teachers but rather highlight other parts of the school picture.

These include the need to provide paths for students bound for trades and other skilled labor jobs, getting the most out of each state education dollar and building more accountability into the unwritten contract between taxpayers and teachers.

And Education Commissioner Steve Bowen has set the table for a vigorous debate about how schools should be structured in the 21st century, a debate that’s long overdue.

But the two school choice bills — allowing families to choose to send their children to schools in other administrative districts if there are openings, and allowing the state to send funds to private religious schools — have the potential to increase the gap between good schools and bad schools. Both will be the subject of public hearings before the Legislature’s Education Committee beginning at 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 15.

LR 2775, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students, would allow schools to accept students from outside their town and district boundaries and still receive state education dollars. The idea is that parents whose local school is not performing well can enroll their child in another school.

Mr. Bowen and other proponents believe schools losing students will shape up. But how? They will be losing funding. They will likely end up with students whose families are unable or unwilling to get them to the “better” schools, thereby accelerating the downward spiral. Good teachers won’t want to take jobs in such schools.

Market forces are exactly what the early American proponents of free public education wanted to avoid, so that rich and poor would have the same opportunities.

The second bill, LR 2774, An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools, is similar. It would allow state funds to be used to pay tuition to private schools, including schools with religious curricula. For example, the city of Portland currently does not receive state education money for Portland students attending that city’s private Wayneflete School. Under the proposed change, the school would receive that aid.

The problem is that state education funding is not likely to increase, so the slices of pie being passed among the state’s schools would get smaller.

A third bill would implement a statewide teacher evaluation system. The Maine Education Association, which represents teacher interests, does not object to the concept of evaluating teachers. In fact, the MEA’s board of directors last year endorsed a teacher evaluation policydeveloped by the National Education Association.

In the governor’s bill on teacher evaluation, though, is a component that would allow superintendents to consider a teacher’s evaluation in laying off teachers when budgets call for such cuts. MEA Executive Director Rob Walker argues that a bad teacher should be removed based on job performance before such cuts are needed. The association wants to stick to seniority as the criteria for cuts required for budgetary reasons.

The MEA also objects to a part of the evaluation bill that allows appeals of evaluation on incorrect implementation of the process, not for subjective mistakes.

Both problems should be easily fixed.

The governor and commissioner want to see bold changes in education, but the school choice initiative carries with it unacceptable risks. The bills should be defeated.

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