Monthly Archives: March 2013

Reform red in tooth & claw and entitlement to choice

Reform red in tooth and claw

Friday, March 22, I attended the Governor’s Conference on Education.  The conference featured presentations by free-market education reformers like the Friedman Foundation and Students First which generally advocate for more standardized testing, fewer unions, and less public oversight in education.  No one even mentioned what makes Finland’s schools the envy of the world.

Regarding market-reforms sapping the capacity of neighborhood schools, the Friedman Foundation in particular holds a Strangeloveian enthusiasm for natural selection with their conference representative observing that “declining enrollments are a positive, natural process.”

The keynote speaker was Tony Bennett, not the singer but the state superintendent of education who lost re-election in Indiana last November and who now has landed on his feet as Florida’s new schools’ chief.

Retaining his demeanor as a basketball coach, Bennett exudes conviction and testosterone when he speaks about his vision of school improvements driven by competition under state-sponsored A-F grading like that proposed by Governor LePage.  Seated in the front row, the Governor seemed to enjoy the show, even when subject to Bennett’s own hectoring about getting out from his Statehouse office more frequently.

Tellingly, Bennett confessed that he believes he failed in Indiana because he was unable to bring along educators in support of his agenda.

By that measure, it seemed to bode poorly for Maine schools that the presenters at the Governor’s conference included no teachers, or even school board members, just professional advocates for inserting market mechanisms into public education with a wedge and maul.

Expanding entitlement via choice

Maine law allows school superintendents by mutual agreement to permit student transfers between school districts by individual request.  This mechanism provides a sort of relief valve for students in unusual circumstances who might benefit from a change of school.

Historically, superintendents receive around 2000 such requests per year and approve more than 90 percent by mutual agreement.  The remaining agreements not approved by superintendents may be appealed to the Commissioner of Education.

The current Commissioner of Education, who advocates openly that he believes students shouldn’t be constrained within any community boundaries of school governance and finance, states that he now will approve all appeals for the transfer of students to any district that parents prefer and which might provide improved educational opportunity.

In pursuit of this policy over the past year, the Commissioner has approved 93% (86 of 92) of the transfer appeals that he has received.

This has caused widespread alarm from those who fear that such wholesale expansion of individual entitlement burdens communities by weakening the mutual commitment to governance and funding of local schools.  The ultimate consequence may indeed be that families no longer need to commit to the support of local schools as they can instead thrive without consequence in districts with lower tax bills that under-fund neighborhood schools while enjoying without obligation the benefits of the commitments of citizens in other communities.

It is not difficult to imagine the destabilizing inequities that could follow from such policy and the resulting damage to educational opportunity to those logistically unable to avail themselves to this expanded entitlement to “school choice.”

On Monday afternoon, our Committee heard testimony on two bills which seek to regulate the Commissioner’s current policy of wholesale approval for interdistrict transfer.

One doesn’t usually see the Commissioner express deep pique with proposed legislation, let alone express a policy preference so strongly in opposition to a bill with committee member sponsorship.  But, in his hearing testimony, the Commissioner made his objection very plain.

In summary, the Commissioner holds that, in the pursuit of individual school choice, an individual is no longer entitled merely to a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” but rather to the better of any two imaginable opportunities, regardless of any civic consequences of governance or finance.  If a parent submits a request to have a child attend a school in a different community, the Commissioner believes he must override any local objection and mandate the transfer.

More incredibly, the Commissioner asserts that in any exercise of this authority to override, the state bears no compunction to square the resulting mandated redirection of local tax dollars.

Because advocating for such high-handedness of state authority without consequence of cost creates cognitive dissonance for conservatives, advocates for this sort of expanded entitlement to subsidized choice deflect attention by characterizing any financial objection as anti-child.

But anyone who believes that community governance and funding capacity are divorceable from individual opportunities for children never has been fundamentally responsible for providing public education.

One would hope that Maine’s Commissioner for Education understands that his constitutional obligation is to all Maine students and the system of public education that comprehensively supports them, not to a laissez-faire ideology that seeks its overall weakening.

Our committee works these bills on Monday.

News reports

Friday, March 22

Monday, March 25

Tuesday, March 26

Wednesday, March 27.

Thursday, March 28

Friday, March 29

Week ahead:

Education in the Biennial Budget

 
Graphic representation of state plus local education spending and EPS level (DoE)

Outline overview and context for the current budget deliberations:

  • Annual state aid to local schools (the base stratum bounded by the lower red line in the graph above) has declined by $84 million since 2008 (from $978M to $894M).
  • Since 2008, by the state’s own calculation, the annual threshold cost of providing adequate opportunity for students to meet Maine’s Learning Results (the upper blue line with red markers in the graph above) has increased by $148 million (from $1,895M to $2,043M).
  • Over the same period, actual total yearly school spending in Maine (the top red line with white markers) has declined by about $50 million (from $2,010M to $1,960M).
  • So, despite Maine property tax-payers filling in an additional $34 million annually towards education during this recession, currently Maine’s overall funding capacity is failing by about $80 million to provide the threshold level of adequate resources necessary for Maine schools to meet the state’s own expectations for education.

This means that, for the first time since the state starting calculating this, the statewide level of school funding has dropped below basic educational need.

This should cause great alarm to anyone who believes that education is critical to Maine’s future.

***

Significant figures within the Governor’s proposed budget:

For this budget cycle, for the first time, state subsidy of schools will be augmented by $13.6M in new revenue from casinos.  It’s important to bear in mind that, by 2010’s citizen referendum, this revenue is dedicated “to supplement and not to supplant funding for essential programs and services.”

But the budget is challenged by the extra burden of $18.5M of subsidy deferred from the current budget and “pushed” into this next biennium as proposed by the Governor and subsequently approved by the Legislature in the recent supplemental budget adjustment.  Moreover, the state is starting further behind because the supplemental budget removed $14.1M from this year’s casino revenue intended for schools in the upcoming biennium in order to fill the revenue hole in the current budget.

Given the state’s diminished resources, the Governor proposes to shift $29M of liability for teacher retirement costs from the state to local school districts.  This eases the state’s budget pain but equivalently increases it for school districts.

The Governor has set the base figure for support for schools is set to match the reduced level of subsidy made necessary by the recent budget curtailment.  Note that this is $12.5M less than the equivalent figure for state school support originally enacted in the current biennium.

It’s also (as the bullet points at the top of this page indicate) $80M short of meeting the state’s own calculation of adequate funding for Maine schools.

The Governor is quick to point out that, even at this reduced level and accounting for the shift in retirement costs, the state share of his budget is $22M higher than the recession-hammered level of state funding in FY2011 when he took office.

This is little comfort to school districts not just because the FY2011 subsidy was significantly augmented by additional federal stimulus funds but also because the Governor’s proposed subsidy is actually $84M less than Maine schools were receiving from the state in FY2008 when the recession hit.

But the Governor’s proposal actually hits local school operations just a little bit harder than that.

Besides the growing costs to local schools of subsidizing state-approved charter schools, the recent legal turmoil surrounding the proposed Baxter Academy charter in Portland has prompted the Governor to set aside $1M of school funding as a legal reserve fund in the event that the state has to defend itself against outside action against state-approved charters, effectively removing that resource from public schools which presumably have to fend for themselves in the event of civil action.

The Governor also proposes to dedicate $9M of school funding to support six initiatives including grants for adult education, school improvement, implementing national standards in technical education, increasing high school access to technical college programs, teacher performance evaluations, and the transition to proficiency-based education.  These are all worthwhile programs but they are competing against other very basic educational needs.

Budget materials

Evidence-based education: How do we truly know what we know?

This week the Education Committee heard two bills for which the testimony favoring and opposing seemed particularly irreconcilable.

1. The post-modern herd

One, LD 672: An Act Relating to Exemption from Immunization for Schoolchildren, responds to a recent national increase, mirrored in Maine, of parents who are choosing not to immunize their children.  Maine now ranks tenth in the country for kindergarten children whose parents have exempted them from immunization for “philosophical” reasons.

Noting that, as a matter of public health, decreasing levels of immunization risks an increase in catastrophic epidemics, the bill’s proponents seek simply to require school nurses to provide parents with information about the benefits of immunization and to have parents declining immunization for their child sign an acknowledgement that they have received the information.

Opponents of the bill testified that even the presentation of information is a government intrusion into parental rights.  Two citizens testified that the comprehensive and peer-reviewed science debunking an hypothesized link between vaccinations and autism was fundamentally, perhaps even conspiratorially, flawed and, as evidence, offered that citizens are unfairly blocked in the legal system to prove this via civil suit against the government.

In essence, the opponents argued that scientific knowledge is by nature imperfect and evolving and therefore, as a fixed point of fact, improperly the subject of official public endorsement.  Therefore any mission of public health must be subordinate to a greater inalienable individual freedom to mistrust and dispute.

…This feels a particular twitch of our times.

2. Inequality by choice

Might it improve kids’ learning if they were sheltered from the expected distractions presented by the presence of those of different sex?

A sizeable group of self-possessed students and parents from Sanford’s Willard Middle School made the trip to Augusta to make sure our committee clearly understood their belief that there’s merit in such segregation.

In response to requests from parents and students, from 2009 until 2012, the Willard School offered its fifth- and sixth-graders optional enrollment in a classroom segregated by sex.  The parents and students who testified said that, relieved from the discomforting gender-based interactions peculiar to the transitions of middle school, both boys and girls found it easier in segregation “just to be themselves” and to grow with increased self-confidence into “who they really are.”

Given that the separation was made by choice and that the curriculum was separate but assuredly equal, the Willard School was surprised last year when the Maine ACLU sent them a letter claiming the separated classrooms violated both Title 9 of federal educational statute and the equal protection clause of the US Constitution’s 14th amendment.

If the Supreme Court rules it’s impermissible for the Virginia Military Academy as a public school to segregate by sex, the ACLU argues, it’s not legal for the Sanford School Department either.

So, Sanford’s proponents of single-sex classrooms brought forward LD 699: An Act To Allow Public Schools To Offer Classes Limited to Students of a Single Gender, with the position that, as a matter of common sense, adolescent girls and boys are widely understood to have different learning styles, differently fragile  levels of confidence, and may be better taught in different ways.  What could be the harm in this as long as such segregation were optional?

Opponents on Thursday saw it differently, claiming that there in fact was no scientific evidence that children of different sex have inherently different learning dispositions and that presuming and enabling such a division represented exactly an institutional amplification of disproven and damaging stereotypes.

Others, including local College of the Atlantic professor Bonnie Tai, saw further potential complication with sex-segregated classrooms resulting from natural complexities of differently overlapping gender identities.

So what at first appeared to be a happy request for flexibility to respond to local initiative turned substantially complex.

So. respecting that all kids learn differently, at present I’m disposed towards not institutionalizing the first cut by kids’ reproductive gear.

Two steps forward: the plight of Maine’s community hospitals

Legislative report: March 11-12, 2013

This week it felt as if the Legislature and the Governor finally both took two steps in the right direction on the hospital debt.  With both sides plainly committed to making the hospitals whole, the negotiations now appear to hinge on whether its better for the state to build the new liquor contract to cover the debt with a large up-front payment from the successful bidder or to borrow against a larger stream of future liquor-fueled revenue.

If the past few week’s political heat and noise continue to subside, I’m hopeful that the Legislature’s:Legal Affairs Committee will do a good job in hashing that out.

The Democrats and the Governor also appear to have moved towards some agreement about the potential benefits of accepting additional federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act to cover Maine’s uninsured.

On Tuesday, I had breakfast with executives from some of Maine’s smaller community hospitals.  As one might imagine, they are relieved about the prospect of the state making quicker progress on their debt.  But they are also very concerned about the effect of the biennial budget on their weakened operations.

Unlike large hospitals, by federal designation, these hospitals are reimbursed on the basis of a restricted range of “allowable costs”.  Moreover, the state actually imposes an additional, partially reimbursed “tax” on these hospitals because this mechanism leverages additional federal funds to the state’s benefit.

Currently, hospitals pay the state $80M in taxes.  In return, the hospitals receive $20M back from the state augmented with $40M in federal money.  So the net “tax” loss to the hospitals is $20M.

The state uses the $60M it received from the hospitals to fund the state’s Medicaid program which draws a federal match of $120M into the state.

In the past, the cost reimbursement rates were sufficient to cover the margin that the small hospitals lost in this “tax and match” transaction.  But those reimbursement rates have been steadily eroding.   And, once again, the Governor’s biennial budget proposes to reduce the reimbursement rate by 8%.  Although they are also subject to broader medicaid and medicare curtailments, this change in reimbursement rates alone will put most of these community hospitals terminally in the red.

Worse, under the reimbursement model, for every state dollar that’s cut from a community hospital’s operations, they lose two dollars of federal match, a corrosive spiral to the bottom.

Our own MDI Hospital, for example, under the proposed state budget is facing the grim prospect of losing an additional $1.5M this coming year on top of last year’s operating loss of $3.4M.

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, these small hospitals are also feeling unfairly compared to the large corporate hospitals whose operations were recently spotlighted by a sensational article by Steven Brill  in Time magazine, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.

The mission, financial compensation, and billing structures of Maine’s community hospitals, they point out, are totally different from those outlined by Brill.

Truly I sympathize with our community hospitals — but we are all suffering in this together.

I, for one, hope this immediate concern compels Maine hospitals jointly to add their voice and obvious political influence to the greater effort to reform the currently broken hospital reimbursement system into a saner and more effective model that efficiently supports community health, wellness, and primary care.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morning

Afternoon

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Morning
Education Committee work session

Afternoon
Education Committee public hearings

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Morning

20130312_IMG_4709_MELIG

Press conference with MELIG business leaders announcing Elevate Maine initiative to expand earlychildhood education

Met with Governor’s policy people to discuss better biological management for landlocked salmon and brook trout and common goals in education policy.

Passamaquoddy concerns re elvers and licensing.

Afternoon:

Education work sessions on special education rules, arts requirements, and compensation for Career and Techical Education Centers’ board members.  We also killed the bill that would have diverted money dedicated for 1% for art in new school construction to pay for emergency generators.

Hearing on bill to keep weapons permits secret:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Democratic press conference on hospital debt and state liquor contract.

Morning briefing from Commissioner Bowen on the education sections of the biennial budget. Afternoon: Public hearings on vaccination information bill and suicide awareness bill

 

Evening. MDI High School board meeting

Converging positions on accepting federal money for health care

Tuesday afternoon, I attended a presentation to the Appropriations Committee by Gordon Smith, the Vice President of the Maine Medical Association about whether the state should accept the additional federal money offered by the Affordable Care Act in order to cover uninsured Mainers.

Mr. Smith gave a detailed and thoughtful presentation of the reasoning given by the 21 states which have decided to accept the money (benefits the uninsured and otherwise the money goes to other states) and the 14 states which are choosing to decline (uncertainty about dependability of future federal funding).

In short, Smith said, Maine doctors conclude that expanding coverage is both a moral imperative and a good business plan for the state.

Strikingly, the conservative Heritage Foundation agrees that expansion of coverage would benefit Maine.

From what I could read of the Appropriations Committee, most members appeared persuaded by Gordon Smith’s reasoning.

If so, in order to persuade the Governor, it’s up to the hospitals next to explain their position.

Private business and public education: a wary but promising partnership

On February 26th and 27th, hosted by Educate Maine, the legislature’s Education Committee took a field trip to visit the Williams School in Oakland and to attend a policy symposium in Freeport.

About 200 students attend the Williams School. Nominally, these students are in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. But, for the past several years, the school has been piloting a transition to proficiency-based learning in which students more flexibly group and regroup, irrespective of grade level, for different subject areas depending on their immediate individual learning goals.

We visited during the school’s schedule-block for math.  In one classroom, the students were using a variety of tools to learn the fundamentals of multiplication.  In another, the topic was time.  Next door: geometry. Down the hall, it was money and currency.  In another classroom, on the floor with their teacher, students were studying division by doing punctuated sets of abdominal crunches. In each class, the kids understood both the specific tasks and how they could demonstrate their understanding of the concepts.
Shelly Moody

It’s always a privilege for an outsider to visit a working public school classroom.  And it was an exceptional privilege to sit in the classroom of Shelly Moody, the 2011 Maine Teacher of the Year, shown in the photo above discussing with her students and legislators the ‘Habits of Mind’ related to learning.

Once students are given a little opportunity for authority over their own learning, no one should doubt that great things are possible every day in classrooms like these in Maine’s public schools under the premises that:

  • Learners learn in different ways and in different time frames.
  • Learners like to learn, can learn, and want to be successful.
  • Learners learn best in a safe and welcoming environment.
  • Learning is enhanced when connected to relevant, real-world experiences.
  • Success breeds success and influences attitude, esteem, and motivation.
  • Mistakes are inherent to learning.

The list above is from the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a cooperative of 29 school districts that are collaborating to implement this vision to more nimbly meet students’ individual learning needs – something that successful small schools with multi-aged classrooms have long practiced.  I’m proud that MDI schools are full partners in this effort.

Perhaps it’s surprising that this effort is championed by Educate Maine, an association of business leaders who have concluded that good education is the most efficient route towards improving Maine’s prosperity.

I must admit that I started fundamentally suspicious of this interest group whose antecedents, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, were organizations which played rough with the more disadvantaged parts of the state during Maine’s school consolidation wars.

In their school-related advocacy, these previous organizations often seemed inclined to the top-down arrogance modeled by national corporate education remodelers,  marked both by disrespect towards teachers as professionals and an egg-busting conviction that any systems analyst with a cocktail napkin could diagram a better way to widget kids through a pipeline more efficiently and with more remunerative brain content than could woolly-headed educators.

In contrast, Educate Maine, funded largely now by New England’s Nellie Mae Education Foundation, seems to have matured and found more common ground for advocacy.

Forgiving their disposition still to see schools primarily as a metaphorical pipeline, one can’t be critical that business leaders have a naturally enlarged interest in ‘work force’ skills.  Rather, Maine should be grateful that these guys understand that early and comprehensive education yields a significant return on investment.

Moreover, I’m heartened to hear Educate Maine and their partners underscore that the most essential skills aren’t technical and specific to any particular business.  What’s needed, they say, are graduates who can communicate clearly, think critically, and work collaboratively to solve unpredictable and complex problems.

Towards this end the business community is initiating several promising efforts. The Maine Early Learning Investment Group, in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation,  is pledging to raise private money to support pre-kindergarten education.

On the other end of K-12, Educate Maine and their partners are developing Project Log-in, a web portal to connect Maine students with technology-related education and professional opportunities.

Most importantly, these groups appear to respect and support the innovation that is happening collaboratively in schools like Williams Elementary and understand that the work of these teachers to support self-motivated nine-year-old creative thinkers complements businesses’ own long-term visions for success.

Increasingly deprived of funding and frequently mischaracterized as resistant to innovation, public schools in Maine should welcome every ally in support of the common purpose of improving educational capacity and equity. Maine’s future well-being depends on forging the joint interests of business and education into such common cause.

Local footnote

This past week, two eighth-graders from Tremont, Parker Murphy and Andrew Jewett, came to Augusta to testify in support of LD 370, An Act To Increase Elementary School Applied Learning Opportunities, a bill that was inspired by Tremont’s effort to broaden school-day opportunities for middle-schoolers to engage in hands-on learning in partnership with local businesses.

Supported by a successful student appeal at Tremont’s town meeting, these students have enjoyed short-term seminars on tree-trimming, cooking, woodworking, and small engine repair.

They testified that previously they hadn’t been much interested in conventional school work.  But they spoke appreciatively about this ‘Options Program,’ seeming genuinely engaged in their learning and looking forward to more.

First in depth look at the Governor’s budget proposals for Maine education

Monday, February 25, in committee, we got our first detailed look at some of the initiatives related to education that the Governor has placed within his biennial budget proposal.

As Commisioner Bowen was up in our neighborhood congratulating Deer Isle High School for their dramatically improved graduation rate, our committee was briefed on the budget by Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier who did his best to confine his explanation to the facts, even though many of us on the committee were eager to probe him on the underlying implicit policy.

This budget proposes to allocate just under $923 million for state aid to public schools for 2014.  While this represents an increase of $27 million over last year, the state contribution still remains $55 million lower than it was in 2008.

Recently Maine’s total school spending has decreased from a high of $2,047 million in 2009 to $1,973 million in 2012.  Significantly, many school districts are now spending below the threshold level which the state calculates as necessary to provide sufficeint opportunity for students to meet Maine’s Learning Results.

This inadequacy of funding is amplified in this proposal by the Governor’s initiative to shift the liability for the payments for teachers’ retirement from the state to the local school districts.

Specifically, the Governor proposes to shift $29 million of “normal retirement costs” (calculated as 2.65% of current teachers’ salaries) from the state’s general fund to the local school districts.

To soften the immediate impact of the transition, the Governor proposes to have the state contribute half this amount as additional state subsidy to schools which would be distributed to schools through the state’s school funding formula.

This means that some districts would receive more than 50% of their costs while others would receive less than 50%.  While a few districts actually would benefit under this arrangement, minimum receivers of state subsidy such as MDI would receive nothing and would have to shoulder the full liability of these costs historically assumed by the state..

Not surprisingly, the Governor’s proposal continues the structural gap between the state’s 9-year-old citizen initiated statutory obligation to fund 55% of the foundational cost of regular education and 100% of schools’ special education expenses.  For the biennial budget, rather than 55%, the Governor proposes that the state provide 44.7% of the foundational cost of regular education.   And, rather than reimbursing 100% of special education costs for minimum receivers, the Governor proposes reducing the state’s reimbursement to 25%.

For MDI, the Governor’s proposed shift in liability and reduction in state aid breaks down this way:

  • Bar Harbor: ($105,611.89)
  • Cranberry Isles: ($4,720.64)
  • Frenchboro: $2,381.79
  • Mount Desert: ($60,942.74)
  • Southwest: ($65,957.99)
  • Swan’s Island: ($15,916.60)
  • Tremont:($32,192.72)
  • Trenton: ($61,771.42)
  • MDI High School: ($187,444.41)
  • Total: ($532,176.62)

At the same time, that the Governor proposes to shift over a half million dollars in school funding to MDI property tax payers, he also proposes to add a half million dollars of additional state expenditures in a new category called the “Choice and Opportunity Fund” which is in essence a school voucher program that would pay for students to attend private and charter schools outside of their own school district.

This budget item radically modifies and expands the section of statute which currently provides funding specifically and exclusively to the Goodwill-Hinckley Center of Excellence for At-risk Students, perhaps leaving funding in doubt for its operation.

Next, the Governor proposes to broaden the state’s discretion over the allocation of casino revenues which, under the present referendum-initiated statute, are dedicated to “supplement and not supplant” general purpose state aid to education, effectively making permanently more easy the sort of raid on this revenue accomplished by the most recent supplemental budget.

On Monday, March 18, our committee and the Appropriations Committee will hold an all-day joint public hearing on the sections of the budget related to education.

This will be the time for all to present their concerns.

Links to selected sections of the Governor’s budget proposal:

Related news reports