Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cost-shifting threatens local education


Maine-School-Funding-graph
Here is an alarm: For the first time in the state’s calculation, Maine faces the prospect of insufficiently funding even the threshold costs of providing a basic education to all Maine students.

Since 2009, our state has reduced its annual contribution towards funding Maine schools by more than $60 million.  As a direct consequence, over this same period, local school districts have reduced expenditures by more than $20 million while local property taxpayers have had to raise an additional $40 million to cover the state’s shortfall.

No wonder local communities are frustrated and angry,  They are paying more than ever and their schools are still being forced to cut school programs.

Amplifying this pain, on top of a projected $6.5M increase in the ordinary costs of schools’ essential programs and services, Governor LePage proposes to shift $29 million in teacher retirement liability to local schools while allocating $14 million on ten new and expanded state initiatives, including expanding funding for homeschoolers to take college classes, extending funding for private business partnerships with schools, and a controversial new state Office of School Accountability with discretionary funding presumably informed by the Governor’s equally controversial new school grading system.

While some of these initiatives and administrative expansions may offer benefits, this spending does nothing to relieve the increasing structural gap between state aid to schools and local schools’ threshold mission to provide essential educational programs and services.

Despite the state-side savings from the retirement shift, the Governor’s budget proposal continues to underfund local school districts.  In fact it depends on local taxpayers absorbing an additional $22 million just to maintain the level of current school services.

Local taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay even more just to maintain essential funding for classrooms and required school programs. This additional $22 million liability conveyed by the governor’s budget is almost certain to break some of our local schools. With taxpayers already tapped out, many school districts’ only recourse will be to cut essential programs.

In this crisis, our state faces these questions:

Are we committed to providing a threshold level of opportunity for Maine students to meet our basic learning goals? If not, what learning expectations are we prepared to jettison?

If we are committed to this basic funding commitment, are we willing to increasingly shift tens of millions of dollars of state obligation to local schools each year? Or is it time for the state to begin honestly to meet its own responsibilities?

For years, Maine has taken pride in having its schools ranked among the nation’s best by most test measures. Understandably, the governor recently has expressed concern that our test scores, while highly commendable by absolute standards, remain flat while those in other states are rising. But is it realistic to expect even modest improvement to follow from the current trend of substantially decreasing school programs?

It’s lazy to the point of meaninglessness to declare, as the Governor has recently done, that half of Maine’s schools are subpar.  The hard question is what are we as a state willing to commit to the effort of school improvement?

Legislators and the governor regularly testify that they understand that the future prosperity of our state depends on the adequate education of Maine students.  It’s time to test that commitment by stemming further erosion of the state’s share of school funding and renewing our effort toward better educational practices.

Some divided reports

As your state legislature is now really getting into the thick of this session’s business, I wanted to provide a report on a few selected bills which represent some honestly divided opinions among legislators.

In each case, I’ve tried to fairly outline the arguments pro and con and then to report on my own vote and the bill status.

As always, I welcome your replies and comments. Please let me continue to hear your concerns.

Superintendent residency requirements

LD 6 An Act To Prohibit a Requirement That a Superintendent Reside in the School Administrative Unit seeks to allow local school boards to waive municipal requirements that school superintendents reside within a municipality.

  • Proponents: As the hiring pool for new superintendents becomes increasingly competitive between districts, residency requirements where they remain are impediments to good candidates.  Allowing locally elected school boards to waive this requirement and hire who they deem best represents reasonable compromise reflecting current need.
  • Opponents: Municipal charters represent home rule. State shouldn’t be creating ways to circumvent charters.

I voted in favor of this bill.  It passed both legislative bodies but the Governor vetoed.  Override votes have not yet been taken in either body.

Making good on the state’s obligation to mental health care.>/b>

LD 87: An Act To Improve Community Mental Health Treatment requires the state to provide rehabilitation services and interim housing for individuals with chronic mental illness.

  • Proponents:  This is legally required of the state by consent decree. Even if not required, lack of treatment will incur greater state expense in the future.  Morally, it’s the right thing to do.
  • Opponents: State cannot afford $5.6 million expense.

I voted in favor of this bill.  The bill is pending enactment in the Senate.

Ethanol bills

LD 105: An Act To Allow Motor Fuel Containing Five Percent Ethanol To Be Sold in the State

allows selling gasoline containing only 5% ethanol

  • Proponents: Provides and option which would be helpful for those with small engines who have had trouble with high ethanol gas, could increase mileage
  • Opponents: Ethanol is only viable option to meet federal requirements for renewable fuel. Nothing in state law prohibits the sale of 5% ethanol. Law is unnecessary.

I voted in opposition to this bill.  But a majority in the House voted in favor.  The bill is currently in non-concurrence between House and Senate.

LD 115: An Act To Join in a Prohibition on Motor Fuel Containing Corn-based Ethanol prohibits the sale of ethanol.

  • Proponents: Ethanol is bad for small engines. Ethanol is not a good source of renewable energy. Ethanol results in lower gas mileage.
  • Opponents: Ethanol remains only viable renewable fuel. Current federal requirements can’t be met in Maine without ethanol. No cost-effective biofuel alternatives exist yet.

I voted in opposition to this bill but the bill received a majority of support in the House. It is currently pending in the Senate.

Reducing size of state legislature:

LD 134: RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Reduce the Size of the Legislature seeks to reduce the number of legislators in the House from 151 to 101 and in the Senate from 35 to 25.

  • Proponents: New technology could make governmental representation more efficient. Would save money. Many states with similar populations have smaller legislatures.
  • Opponents: Close representation and personal access to government is distinctive to Maine.  Present number of legislators allows efficient division of effort and thoughtful in-depth committee work. Cost of legislature is less than 1% of state budget.

I voted in opposition to this resolution.  The bill died between the House and Senate.

Grandparents’ rights

LD 209: An Act To Strengthen the Rights of Grandparents under the Grandparents Visitation Act seeks to extend Grandparents’ rights to see their grandchildren over parental objection  to grandparents who qualify under an expanded definition of “sufficient existing relationship.”

  • Proponents: “Sufficient existing relationship” is inadequately defined in statute.  Modern families are complex with grandparents filling in more as surrogate parents in cases such as parental incarceration, disability, and illness.
  • Opponents: Expanded definition of sufficient existing relationship likely to infringe on constitutional case law.  Grandparents who have de facto parental relationship already currently allowed to intervene.  This would tread on parents’ rights to protect against manipulative or abusive relationships.

I voted in opposition to the bill. The bill died in both the House and Senate.

Teen tanning

LD 272: An Act To Reduce Youth Cancer Risk prohibits tanning business to sell their services to those under 18.

  • Proponents: New medical evidence clearly shows that artificial tanning greatly increases the incidence of melanoma in teens.
  • Opponents: Bill oversteps state authority over individuals and families.

I voted in favor of this bill.  The bill was enacted in both bodies but vetoed by the Governor.  Neither body overrode the veto.

Growing food in the Capitol Park

LD 474: An Act to Require Edible Landscaping in a Portion of Capitol Park directs the Park Commission, subject to adequate funding, to arrange for and implement a plan to incorporate food-producing landscaping into a portion of Capitol Park as consistent with the Olmstead plan in 1920.

  • Proponents: raises awareness of local food and inspires public to plant own gardens, reduces park maintenance, conforms to original park design.
  • Opponents: even nominal expenditure of public funds is inappropriate.

I voted in favor of the bill.  The bill passed both bodies and awaits the Governor’s signature.

Expanding placement of commercial signs

LD 483: An Act To Promote Small Businesses by Enhancing the Use of On-premises Signs increases the height and distance that commercial signs can be from businesses and allows them closer to public ways.  Allows more signs for each business and eliminates some restrictions on changeable lighted displays.

  • Proponents: More signs are good for business. Current restrictions are inappropriate.
  • Opponents: Maine’s long-standing sign law is appropriate and protects Maine’s brand.  More signs could be distracting.

I voted in opposition to this bill. The bill died in both bodies.

Health care for young adults leaving foster care

LD 487: Resolve, To Establish MaineCare Eligibility for Young Adults Who Were Formerly in Foster Care directs the state to identify and reach out to enroll eligible 19- to 25-year-olds formerly in foster care into the MaineCare program.

  • Proponents: this allows health care coverage to young adults who otherwise lack means for coverage under the extended family plan provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Opponents: State can not afford any expansion of MaineCare to a population that should be generally healthy.

I voted in favor of this bill.  The bill is pending enactment in both bodies.

Minimum wage

LD 611: An Act To Adjust Maine’s Minimum Wage Annually Based on Cost-of-living Changes

seeks incrementally to increase Maine’s minimum wage to $9.00 and indexes it after that to the chained cost of living.

  • Proponents hold that putting more money in the pockets of the working poor benefits local business.
  • Opponents argue that raising the minimum wage will hamper the number of entry level opportunities that businesses can offer.

I voted in favor of the minimum wage increase.  It passed the House and is pending in the Senate on the Appropriations table.

Drugs for the elderly

LD 629: An Act To Restore Eligibility and Funding for Drug Programs for the Elderly and Disabled seeks to restore the recently reduced eligibility to the Medicare savings program for the elderly.

  • Proponents: This is a vital program that helps seniors afford the cost of medicines without which they would be far sicker and dependent upon more expensive state nursing care.
  • Opponents: State can’t afford to restore this benefit of nearly $3 million.

I voted in support of this bill.  The bill is still pending enactment in the Senate.

Minimum obligation for local funding of schools

LD 667: An Act To Increase Funding to Schools seeks to phase out the proportional share reduction granted to school districts and their local taxpayers to meet the full funding of their schools when the state is unable fully to fund its share.

  • Proponents: Current law exacerbates chronic structural underfunding of public education, unfairly allows some districts to maintain lower levels of school support than others.
  • Opponents: hypocritical for state to mandate minimum local share when unable to meet own obligation.  Tax base is tapped out.

I voted in favor of the phase-out of this reduction.  The bill is currently in the Senate.

Right to work (for less)

LD 786: An Act To Ensure the Voluntary Membership of Public Employees in Unions and LD 831 An Act To Prohibit Mandatory Membership in a Union or Payment of Agency Fees as a Condition of Employment sought to eliminate the requirement that workers paid under collectively bargained agreements support the costs of collective bargaining.

  • Proponents: Requirement coerces support of union operations. Inappropriate for state to serve a collection agent for these costs.  Bargained contracts put businesses at competitive disadvantage.
  • Opponents: federal law requires unions to represent all workers governed by collectively-bargained agreements, only fair that all who benefit should share in costs of representation.  Other union expenses are wholly voluntary. Bargaining is engaged by mutual agreement of workers and businesses.

I voted in opposition to LD 786 and to LD 831.  The bills both died in both bodies.

Organ donation

LD 835: An Act to Improve Organ Donation Awareness: requires a $2 donation checkoff on drivers’ license applications to fund the Maine organ donation fund.

  • Proponents: 117,000 individuals are on organ transplant waiting lists, 18 people on this list die each day for lack of a transplant. Check-off is voluntary.
  • Opponents:  Oppose state administration and spending. philosophically opposed to transplants.

I voted in favor of this bill.  The bill is pending further action in both bodies.

Holiday retail sales

LD 1197: An Act to Allow Stores under 10,000 Square Feet To Be Open On Certain Holidays

…allows stores having under 10,000 square feet of interior customer selling space to be open on Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

  • Proponents: oppose any commercial restriction.
  • Opponents: retailers split on bill, 85% do not want to open on Christmas but would feel pressured if allowed. No evidence that opening holidays increases overall sales volumes, just spreads same volume over more days. Holidays should be family time for workers.

I voted to accept the Committee’s Ought Not To Pass report. The bill did not pass in either the House or Senate.

Dismantling Maine schools through grading and ‘choice’

At last, via a November 25 memo from Commissioner Bowen to Governor LePage, we have plain insight into the Governor’s plans for Maine schools.

This greatly aids in understanding why the Governor never misses an opportunity to claim that Maine schools, still by most measures among the best in the nation, are ‘failing’ and why he was eager to release a grading system that suggests to the public that half Maine’s schools are unsatisfactory.

Preparing the Governor’s next budget, Commissioner Bowen proposed “Funding to put an Office of School Accountability Into place to parallel the legislation we’ll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools.”

In April, the Legislature’s Education Committee received a document from the Department of Education identifying a $3 million initiative identified by identical language. But when this concept immediately raised committee members’ eyebrows, the Department, with evident embarrassment, withdrew this as a ‘typo’ and recharacterized the initiative as being in support of struggling schools.

But the Department offered no explanation either of what measures would be used in defining “struggling” or what criteria the Department would use to disburse the funding. So the majority of the Education Committee voted to decline the initiative.

Now that the November 25 memo has become public, we get a fuller picture of what the Governor’s and Commissioner’s vision. Here, directly transcribed, Commissioner Bowen explains:

Issue: School accountability

The biggest step by far would be to authorize some kind of takeover of a school by the state.

We do not have the authority to do that under current law. What we could do is propose legislation that takes a school out from under the authority of the school district and puts it under state control. We have some models out there like this — Louisiana and Tennessee, for instance — so we have some models to look at. I don’t know if we have the votes for something like this with the legislature we have coming along, but I think we should push for some kind of consequence for schools that fail to improve.

A step that is not quite as dramatic as a state takeover would be to allow students in failing schools to have school choice. We could try to add that in, but again, I don’t know if we have the votes.

So the real question is, how hard to you want to push on this? Let me know. Accountability is a good issue politically, I think.

and

Issue: School choice

We need to come up with a school choice bill for this session, what do you think about thefollowing concept? (It also connects to the issue around what to do with Good Will Hinckley)

Goal: expand school choice opportunities for students by overcoming barriers to choice options.

Existing choice options and barriers to them:

  • Charter schools. Barriers: residential/transportation costs for some students.
  • Homeschooling. Barriers: Time and cost for parents and families.
  • Supt. Transfers. Barriers: Supt’s sometimes block them, transportation costs for parents.
  • Town Tuitioning. Barriers: Only in some towns, parent costs for non-approved schools.

Core issue — We have lots of choice options, but money not opportunity, is a barrier. Money would create far more choice options for students, especially low-income students

Bill concept — “The Choice and Opportunity Fund”

  • Fund created in statute, in GPA. (This is how we redirect the Good Will Hinckley money while still allowing GWH to access it – through the students)
  • Available for low-income students only. We will set certain income guidelines
  • Can be used for the following purposes:
    • Fund some amount of transportation costs for students traveling to school outside their home district.
    • Fund a certain amount — based on some statewide average or something – of residential costs for low income students to attend a school (public, private or charter) that is outside a set commuting range (x number of miles) and which parents can demonstrate uniquely meets the needs of the student (this could fund residence programs at GWH, for instance)
    • Fund tuition to approved private schools for students that do not live in town tuitoning towns. (Supt. agreements cannot be made with private schools)
    • Provide funds to low-income homeschoolers, to be used for teaching materials, etc.
    • Other?

Let us know what you think of this approach. It is a kind of voucher approach that builds on what we have for choice options already. We could add in that it could be used for religious schools as well. We would have to find budget space for this and do rules governing the program, so would take a little bit of time to work out, but I think the low-income element makes it a good approach politically.

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…And there you have it.