School funding: Analysis and two questions for Maine legislators

Maine-School-Funding-graph

Above is a graph that shows the underlying conditions that make the case for additional funding for state aid to local schools beyond what the Governor proposes.

The bottom line represents state subsidy to local schools. Note that since 2008 the state has cut school support by over $80 million.

The second lowest dashed line represents 55% of schools’ essential programs and services, a statutory level of support which the state has never reached.

The difference between the two bottom lines therefore can be understood as the structural gap in school funding that the state chronically has shifted to local school districts. For the current year that structural gap is approximately $200 million.

The second line from the top in blue represents 100% of the cost of schools’ essential programs and services. This is the state’s own calculation of the minimum threshold of school spending necessary to ensure that all Maine students have adequate opportunity to meet Maine’s educational standards.

The blue figures floating midway between the lower and upper lines represent the difference between state aid to local schools and the 100% cost of essential programs and services. This difference is the local lift that schools must raise locally in order to adequately fund education. In 2009, schools were obligated to raise $904 million from local property taxes to reach this threshold. In 2013, they needed to raise $1,098 million – nearly $200 million more.

The top line is actual total school spending. In 2009, Maine schools spent a total of $2,047 million on education. In 2013, total spending has declined to an estimated $2,026 million – a $20 million curtailment in educational programming.

But what is truly alarming is that, for the first time since the state has been making this calculation, total school spending currently is poised to decline below the minimum threshold level for essential programs and services.

Given that the Governor’s budget proposes to increase the structural gap between state funding and 100% of essential programs services by $22 million in 2014 and $51 million in 2015, this leaves legislators with two questions:

1) Are we as a state committed to providing adequate opportunity for all Maine students to reach the state’s learning standards? …Or do we instead give up and concede that Maine can no longer to afford to adequately educate all students?

2) If we are committed to ensuring adequate opportunity for learning, will we at least hold the line and maintain responsibility for the state’s share of support for schools? …Or will we instead shirk that responsibility and presume to shift an additional $22 million annual obligation to local schools’ property tax payers at the same time that the Governor proposes to slash municipal revenue sharing?

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

 

Guns, privacy, politics and school budget hits

Report to Maine House District 35 from the Legislature: week of February 19-22, 2013:

Guns, privacy, and politics

On Tuesday, as predicted, we acted with legislative alacrity to enact a temporary law that shields concealed weapons permit data from public view.

No matter where one stands on privacy, public safety, or government transparency, the action was nearly indefensible as good policy-making process.  But please understand that it’s naive to expect that policy-making can be safely firewalled from politics on a matter inflamed by such hysteria.

It’s clear to me that there are some interests out there whose political aim is singularly to create distraction through ideological smoke and noise, in the hopes that honest legislative deliberations are obstructed or derailed. If the volume of email in my inbox over last weekend was any indication, all sides were getting played like Wurlitzers on this issue and the legislature, predictably, reacted like a flock of starlings spooked by a truck backfire.

We are, after all, merely the twitchy nerve network of the public’s body politic.

The hasty temporary action wasn’t law-making at its best, certainly.  Nevertheless, I am convinced it was the prudent interim course, given the worse alternative of escalating shoulder-bumping about respective unproven harms and risking the displacement of the enormous amount of work that presses immediately in negotiating the next budget.

So, instead, may we please talk directly about improving prosperity, education, and community well-being?

‘Restraint and seclusion’

On Wednesday, our committee heard five hours of testimony regarding a bill, LD 243, sponsored by Senator Saviello that seeks to  amend some sections of the rules governing the classroom use of physical contact, adopted a year ago by consensus through a stakeholders’ group.   Much tension appears around the precise terms of the ‘physical escorting’ of a child who is disruptive or defiant in class.  While there was disagreement among those testifying about whether ‘shepherding,’ ‘guiding’, and perhaps ‘scooting’ are legally permitted, there seemed much less disagreement about whether these were reasonable and necessary practices.

There was some disagreement about whether the simple damaging of property justified physical intervention by a teacher or whether intervening was appropriate only in the event that a child’s destruction of property threatened to harm himself or other students.

There was also an interesting disagreement about whether it was appropriate for teachers to engage in more forcible intervention with the explicit permission of a child’s parents or whether such action would further confuse students about the appropriate consequences of disruptive behavior.

Proponents argued that current rules are unfair to the great majority of students whose learning is curtailed when schools allow disruption to continue without intervention.

The bill’s opponents argued that the rules are fine but that more training is needed to give teachers better strategies for dealing with disruption and that substantial parts of what the bill seeks to allow are in fact already permitted under the present rules.

Towards the end of the hearing, there seemed some hope that opposing stakeholders could find some common ground in agreeing to some modifications in the terms of ‘physical escot’ and some clarification about some greater latitude permitted under the current rule.

Early voting

On Wednesday, the Legal Affairs Committee heard three bills related to absentee and early voting.  Two bills, LD 53 and LD 54 seek to eliminate restrictions on absentee voting. Many town clerks say these bills would disrupt their pre-election set up and greatly complicate supervision on election day.  A third bill, LD 156 which would streamline direct early voting via a Constitutional amendment, appears to have much broader support.

Supplementary budget

While a few Democrats objected that the compromise struck by the Appropriations Committee shortchanged schools and health care and wished for a broader discussion about increasing state revenue, the $153M supplemental budget passed the legislature with enormous margins on Thursday.

This clears the way for this session’s substantial work, the $6.3B biennial budget.

Gun training mandate rejected

On Thursday, our committee voted to kill the bill which would have required secondary schools to offer gun handling classes.  This position was apparently endorsed by the Governor whose representative testified at the public hearing that a mandate for such classes is unwarranted.

Maine schools remain free to offer both gun handling classes and gun safety classes, should their boards choose.  But the state will not require that they offer these programs.

We also threaded the needle on the superintendent residency bill, declining to override the municipalities which require residency but granting municipal school boards the authority to waive such a requirement, if they wish.

Budget hits from Governor’s proposal to shift teacher retirement costs to local schools

On Friday, the Department of Education released the preliminary figures for state subsidy of schools for the coming fiscal year which begins in July.

This is our first look at the consequence of the Governor’s proposal in the biennial budget  to shed the state’s obligation to fund public school teachers’ retirement by shifting the liability to local school units.

The Governor proposes to temper this shift for the coming year by kicking in a $14M subsidy of roughly half the statewide cost of $28M.  Because the Governor proposes to run the subsidy through the regular school funding formula, this is no relief to MDI’s schools as we received virtually no state subsidy through the formula anyway.

So here, from the preliminary figures, is the immediate hit the Governor proposes for MDI schools whose budgets are already largely set for town meeting votes beginning in the next few weeks.

  • 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)

Source:

Our committee is scheduled to receive a briefing on this proposal on Monday morning at 10:30..

Contact

Please let me continue to hear your thoughts on these topics above and any other legislative concerns.

With gratitude,
Brian


Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

RepBrian.Hubbell@legislature.maine.gov
http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Hubbell.HD35
https://twitter.com/Brian_Hubbell
66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)

Feb 11-15: four dilemmas and a decent compromise

Dear Friends in House District 35,

As things are beginning to roll now in the legislature, rather than make a comprehensive report I’ll just outline some of the dilemmas I’ve had to face this week as your representative.

Understanding that not all of you will agree with me, I will do my best to explain clearly my reasoning.  Always I welcome contrasting discussion. Please let me continue to hear from you.

Home rule vs. state relief

On Monday, our committee heard LD 6, An Act To Prohibit a Requirement That a Superintendent Reside in the School Administrative Unit.

Six Maine municipalities — Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, Brewer, and Presque Isle  — have requirements in their municipal charters specifying that school superintendents must be city residents.  Biddeford and Augusta currently are searching for new superintendents (along with nearly a third of Maine’s school districts) and both have found that their residency requirement is a significant deterrent to many good candidates. Therefore, representatives from those two cities are seeking to have the legislature comprehensively prohibit municipalities from imposing a residency requirement.

I fully understand why the residency requirement is almost certainly bad policy.  But, to me that determination is better made by local school boards than by comprehensive state prohibition.  After all, there may be some communities in which residency may have overarching importance.

But what troubles me most about this bill is that it seeks to make an end-run around municipal voters.   Each of these towns has their own local avenue of relief by having their voters amend their charters.  Biddeford, in fact, attempted exactly this but had it fail at referendum.  Given this, it seems arrogant and anti-democratic for the state to conclude that it knows better than local voters about the respective merits and drawbacks of municipal policy.

On their own, Lewiston apparently found a middle way to solve this problem by leaving the residency requirement in place in their charter but allowing the municipal school board to waive the restriction.  To me, that seems the proper solution and I would hope the other five municipalities could find their way out similarly.

On Wednesday at a work session, our Committee had tabled this bill pending some legal questions and is considering some amendments proposed by the Maine School Management Association.  While I remain open-minded to this additional information, I’m inclined to oppose this bill as presented.

Here’s a news report.

Community vs. commitment

On Wednesday afternoon, our committee heard two bills related to granting private-schooled and home-schooled students increased access to public school programs.

LD 61, An Act To Amend Standards for Participation in Certain Public School Services by Students Who Are Homeschooled, seeks to extend access to special education services to home-schoolers.  LD 92, An Act Relating to Private School Student Participation in Public School Cocurricular, Interscholastic and Extracurricular Activities, as the title suggests, proposes to allow private school students to participate in public school team sports and other co-curricular  activities not offered by their own schools.

Underlying the arguments regarding both bills is the struggle for insufficient school resources.  Opponents hold that those committing to attend public schools ought to get first dibs on school activities including competitive placement on teams.  Proponents argue that they support these school activities with their tax dollars and so ought to have an equal claim to participate.

I sympathize with both views.  But, ultimately, for me it comes down to the frame of the special turf that public schools possess as community institutions.

Wholly unlike private, parochial, and charter schools, a public school represents a community’s capacity to provide educational opportunity to all students.  To the same extent that I believe all citizens bear an obligation to support this public educational opportunity, I believe our schools are obligated to extend that opportunity to every child in the community, even to those who only partially participate by choice.

In many ways, private and charter schools and even home-schoolers deepen the tribal divides between community members.  In contrast, public schools offer a privileged common ground.

This seems a fundamentally important principle: the more broadly mapped a community is to its school, the better our community prospects and vitality – and the broader the community support at budget time.

This is also why I deeply oppose diverting public money through vouchers and tax credits to private, parochial, and charter schools which bear none of this sort of broader obligation.

Encouragement vs. requirement

Nothing ignites passions this season like guns.  I still trust that Mainers can discuss gun rights and gun regulation with equal respect and rectitude.

We had a committee hearing on Thursday on the first of this session’s gun-related bills, LD 93, An Act To Require Public Secondary Schools To Offer a Course in Gun Safety and Handling.

At the hearing there were significant differences between the bill’s proponents about whether the best purpose of the bill was to teach actual gun handling to high school students or gun avoidance as part of a broader health and safety program for elementary students — both of which are currently allowed (but not required) in public schools.  The Governor’s counsel further muddied the water by testifying, nominally in support of the bill, that the Governor thought that such efforts ought to be ‘encouraged’ but not mandated.

Given the Governor’s position in particular, I think the chances of passage of this bill, which mandates the provision of such instruction, are very slim.

Privacy vs secrecy

But any debate on this bill is now greatly eclipsed by the furor that same day following another bill, LD 345, An Act To Ensure the Confidentiality of Concealed Weapons Permit Holder Information which seeks to make secret the issuance of public permits for concealed weapons.

Similarly to the way that concern about expanded national gun restriction has stimulated current gun sales, this bill prompted the Bangor Daily News to seek the current public lists of concealed weapons permits from the respective local authorities that issue the permits and maintain the records.

Fearing that this request foreshadowed public publication of permit holders’ names and addresses, legislators have been deluged with emails from angry gun owners demanding that public access to permit data be immediately restricted.

I have some sympathy about the privacy concerns of law-abiding gun owners, especially given that there is virtually no evidence in Maine of the slightest criminal activity of any concealed permit holders.

At the same time, it seems strange to me that public knowledge of gun-carrying permits increases the chances of gun-owners being victimized.  In contrast, I might hypothesize that knowing how common guns are in Maine and the respectability of permit holders might aid in allaying public fear about gun ownership.  But I am open to education about this.

In the meantime, the Governor and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed an emergency bill which would temporarily restrict access to public concealed weapons permit data until the legislature can properly deliberate on the original LD 345.

So, knowing that I will unavoidably disappoint many good friends not matter how this is resolved, I want to say that I begin by being fundamentally distressed by the concept of our government secretly issuing permits of any kind.

Principle vs. compromise

On Wednesday, the Appropriations Committee reached unanimous bipartisan consensus on the supplemental budget.

The Appropriations Committee work is heroic, in terms of both endurance and compromise.  So it’s always interesting to note what’s finally in and out of their final report.

Significantly for our area, among many other reasonable provisions, the final bill:

  • maintains the reimbursement rate for rural Critical Access Hospitals such as MDI’s, defending it against the Governor’s initial proposed reductions.
  • reduces the proposed reductions for many other essential health services including the Fund for Healthy Maine and the drugs for the elderly program.
  • adds language requiring the state to pursue any federal funds to facilitate Maine’s participation in the federal insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
  • rejects the proposed elimination of cost of living increases for state retirees including teachers.

The only item that failed in the smoke of the compromise was the removal of the ‘curtailment surcharge’ added to school districts which subsidize charter schools.  To the Democrats this seemed self-evident as a matter of basic fairness.  But the Republicans held that it was more important to protect charter school operations from curtailment, even if that required extra cuts to the public schools in the charters’ pupils’ home districts.  And, even though the five thousand or so dollars at stake were vanishingly insignificant against the overall $150 million budget, defense of charters ultimately was the line in the sand the Republicans chose to defend.

Overall, however, the supplemental budget represents a good compromise and the Appropriations Committee deserves the credit it’s receiving for its work so far this session.

Bar Harbor Resolve requesting legislative action

The Bar Harbor Town Council asks legislators to support the transportation bond and transportation infrastructure projects, to reject the Governor’s proposal to end municipal revenue sharing, to re-commit to state support of 55% of the costs of public education, to fund mandated improvements under the Federal Clean Water Act, and to support job training.

February 4-8, 2013

Bluster and improvement

Our committee had been scheduled to receive a briefing from the Department of Education on Monday.  But, after the committee’s report to Appropriations last week on the supplemental budget which was followed by the Department issuing a scathing press release blasting the majority’s recommendation to extend the Governor’s curtailment to include the charter schools, the Department cancelled the briefing.

There was, of course, no way officially to connect the two events.  But, one good consequence was that I got an unplanned day off from Augusta and instead got to attend a Bar Harbor school board meeting at which we heard some good reports from teachers on the progress they’re making in professional collaboration with their peers in other districts as part of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.

Never mind the political bluster.   It’s through these individual teacher-to-teacher collaborations that the real work of improving Maine education is happening.

Maine’s debt to Critical Access Hospitals

On Tuesday, I attended a breakfast at the Maine Hospital Association with representatives from Maine’s rural community hospitals – not only our own MDI Hospital, but also hospitals in Blue Hill, Machias, Calais, Houlton, Millinocket, and Lincoln.

In order to ensure rural access to critical health services these hospitals have been federally designated since 1997 as Critical Access Hospitals which allows them direct reimbursement for certain allowable Medicare and Medicaid costs. They are not reimbursed for community health, charity care, or bad debt.

In 2004, in order to leverage state access to federal Medicare and Medicaid revenue, Maine implemented a “tax” on Critical Access Hospitals which triggers a federal “match.”  A portion of the federal “match” is then returned to the hospitals.  Over time the balance of their respective share of “tax” vs. match has become increasingly unfavorable to Critical Access Hospitals.  In 2012 MDI Hospital’s “tax” share was $812,071.  Their “match” reimbursement was $260,054 for a net loss of $552,017.

The Governor’s supplemental budget proposes to reduce the reimbursement rate to these hospitals by an additional 8%.

Under present structure, the effective rate of reimbursement for Maine’s Critical Access Hospitals is $0.87 for every dollar of expense.  As a results these hospitals are operating at a deficit.  Because Critical Access Hospitals are funded in proportion to their expenditures, any effort to rebalance their budgets by reducing expenditures proportionally reduces their revenues.  So, to balance MDI Hospital’s budget, for example, every $1000 reduction in revenue has to be balanced by a $2080 reduction in expenditures.

Under the Governor’s proposed 8% reduction, MDI Hospital would lose $311,104 in Medicaid revenue.  To balance their budget in proportion to the reduced revenue, the hospital will need to cut its expenses by $647,096.  If implemented through the supplemental budget, this reduction would require significant layoffs and curtailment of local healthcare services.

Along with MDI Hospital’s president Art Blank, I have spoken with Peggy Rotundo, the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee about the consequences to our community should this part of the supplemental budget get approved.  I believe the Appropriations Committee understands our concern.

Tuesday evening, the Governor addressed a joint session of the legislature.  Among other points, the Governor repeated his interest in paying down the $275 million debt owed to hospitals.

As the Governor has occasionally framed this as a partisan issue, Democrats find this frustrating because they believe the Governor fails to credit them with paying down $742 million in hospital debt from 2005 to 2010 and for instituting the current “pay-as-you-go” system to hospitals in 2009 which stemmed the debt accrual.

Nevertheless, I hope that repaying the hospital debt is matter of common interest and that it doesn’t get derailed by partisan characterization.

Governor grades education

Also during his State of the State address, the Governor announced an initiative to have Commissioner Bowen give letter grades of A,B,C,D, or F to all Maine schools, presumably based on their students’ performance on standardized tests and their graduation rates.  To me, this seems an oddly over-simplistic measure given the other initiatives currently underway in Maine education to broaden educational pathways for students and recognition that modern educational ‘achievement’ is fundamentally more complex than letter grades satisfactorily can indicate.

But the Governor consistently has couched his criticism of Maine schools in statistics that would appear to demonstrate that Maine schools are failing.  During his address on Tuesday, he said:

As a whole, Maine’s achievement in academic growth is far below the national average. We are next to last. Twenty years ago, Maine was in the top five, and we bragged it for 20 years. Now we’re next to last, because every other state has woken up. They’ve woken up to the Finlands, to the Hong Kongs, to the Shanghais, to the Canada, and they’re beating us, straight up. We need to be more aggressive in the standards of our education and the demands of our schools.

The misrepresentation here is that the Governor is comparing current growth in test scores a lagging measure for Maine with absolute placement in test scores, a measure by which Maine students still perform very well against the national average.

Academic warranty

The Governor also announced his intention to assess public school districts for the cost of remedial classes taken by students in Maine’s community colleges.   Initially there may be some popular reflexive attraction to this concept – for penalizing school systems for graduating students without college skills.  But I believe it’s important to bear in mind that the average age of a student entering the community college system is 27.  How long is it reasonable to expect a public school to provide an academic warranty on its graduates?

Learning from Finland

The real question of course is not about whether Maine schools should be working to improve.  They should.  The battleground is over what policy changes are likely to effect improvement.

The Governor has made it plain that he thinks Maine educational capacity can be increased by concurrently cutting Maine public schools’ governance and finance while simultaneously increasing the number of new charter schools and creating new entitlements for students to attend private and parochial schools.  I’m skeptical.

In his speech, the Governor referenced Finland as one case study of a system of exemplary school achievement.  Yet Finland employs none of the policies the Governor hopes to emplace in Maine. Finland has a robust social safety net, a strong professional class of unionized teachers, and virtually no program of summative standardized testing to judge the academic performance of either students or their schools.

The Governor has pledged to bring experts to Maine in March for a conference on best educational practices.  Whether or not the Finnish model is presented at this conference will tell us a lot about the Governor’s open-mindedness towards learning how to improve Maine’s capacity for education.

Guns and domestic violence

Governor LePage deserves real credit for his focus on reducing domestic violence in Maine. On Thursday, I attended the press conference at which the Governor charged a new task force with ensuring that domestic abusers don’t easily have access to firearms, a topic which is rife with political pitfalls.

Gun control is an issue on the minds of many of you, I know. I appreciate all your emails and letters. I assure you that I will pick my way through this issue as carefully and thoughtfully as I know how.

Landlocked Salmon and Brook Trout

On Wednesday morning, I met with Dennis Smith from Otter Creek and Jeff Evangelos, the Representative from Friendship, to discuss a bill that I’ve put in at Mr Smith’s request.to improve the state’s management of landlocked salmon and brook trout.  Representative Evangelos serves on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and supports the effort.  The bill is still being drafted and is not yet published.

Maine’s school funding model

On Wednesday morning, our committee heard a presentation from Picus Associates on their plan to review and analyze Maine’s Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ school funding model.  Picus will bring the experience from studying other states’ funding models.  Particularly, I’m looking forward to hearing more detail about how Maine compares with Vermont which is in many ways demographically an educational peer in academic achievement and school governance.

This presentation was followed by a committee forum on Thursday afternoon at which we took public comment on concerns related to the current model.  Picus Associates recorded the comments.  The first phase of their report will be returned April 1st.

Also on Thursday, the Maine Center for Economic Policy released this report:

Briefings on school choice

Also on Wednesday, Commissioner Bowen reported to the committee on the stakeholder group that was formed at the end of the last legislature in response to the Governor’s late session initiative to implement a system of school ‘choice’ in Maine.

The last education committee had found the problems both of governance and of local funding represented in that initiative to be substantial and thorny and so had charged this stakeholder group to hammer out a workable model for implementation.

But the Commissioner report only that the problems had proven too difficult for the stakeholder group to resolve.  So the matter of school ‘choice’ remains stalled at the starting line for now.

Over the same period, Maine school superintendents report a substantial increase in the number of student transfers that Commissioner Bowen has unilaterally approved by overruling transfers that superintendents had individually denied.

The superintendents, who typically approve nine out of ten transfer requests as being legitimately in the best interests of the applicant, fear that unprecedented increase in overrides represents a back-door implementation of school choice by the Commissioner, largely invisible to local schools and the taxpayers that support them.

Control and review of these superintendent agreement overrides are the subject of several legislative requests for bills this session.

Supplemental budget negotiations

The Appropriations Committee is continuing to negotiate the details of the supplemental budget.

The Committee has reached consensus on the less controversial sections of the budget.  They are still working on the more difficult parts which include:

  • General Purpose Aid to Education
  • the General Assistance cap
  • Retiree ad hoc COLA
  • Charter school participation in the curtailment
  • The Governor’s elimination of the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly Program

This work will continue next week with the hopes that the supplemental budget can go to the full legislature by the beginning of the following week.

Carbon cap

In encouraging news, Maine and eight other northeastern states that participate in the regional cap-and-trade market for carbon have agreed further to lower utility emissions.

Administered through Efficiency Maine, proceeds from the sale of these emissions credits have benefited many Maine industries including Madison Paper, the Verso mill in Bucksport, and the Jackson Lab here in Bar Harbor.

Maine Environmental Priorities

On Thursday morning, the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition hosted a breakfast meeting with legislators outlining four bills that the coalition will be supporting this session

  • An Act To Improve Maine’s Economy and Lower Energy Costs through Energy Efficiency, Senator Boyle
  • An Act To Open the St. Croix River to River Herring, Rep. Soctomah
  • An Act To Protect Water Quality and Avoid Taxpayer Clean-up Costs from Metallic Mineral Mines, Rep. McCabe
  • An Act To Further Strengthen the Protection of Pregnant Women and Children from Toxic Chemicals, Senator Goodall

Upcoming week in Education

The Education Commmittee begins public hearings this week on this session’s education bills.

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

RepBrian.Hubbell@legislature.maine.gov
http://www.mainehousedistrict35.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Hubbell.HD35
https://twitter.com/Brian_Hubbell
66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)

January 28 – February 1, 2013

Bills list for this session

The Revisor’s Office has published the list of legislator’s bill requests.  My education committee is schedule to work about 180 bills, a substantial load.

Supplemental budget

In a work session that was pleasurable to no one, the Education Committee endorsed the across the board supplemental budget reductions made necessary by the Governor’s curtailment order. Notable changes include:

  • $12,579,756 cut from General Purpose Aid to schools
  • $2,535,228 cut from the University of Maine system
  • <$724,451 cut from the Community College system
  • <$143,401 cut from the Finance Authority of Maine for student aid.

On a 10-1 vote, we also voted to allow the General Fund to “raid” this year’s unallocated revenue from the Oxford Casino which currently is dedicated towards future GPA.  As abhorrent as the decision was, it seemed better than the alternative which was to cut additional currently allocated funds from GPA.

We declined to endorse the proposed elimination of eligibility for kindergarten-aged disabled children to participate in the Child Development Services program.

In a split vote, the Committee declined to endorse the re-framing of the Fund for Efficient Delivery of Education Services to limit its application to reorganizations centered on Career and Technical Education facilities.

The Committee most likely also would have declined to endorse the Governor’s proposal to increase from 5% to 10% the surcharges paid to private academies for capital expenses.  But, sensing the lack of support, the Commissioner withdrew that section.

Charter schools, which receive their money through the local schools’ budgets were exempted from curtailment under the Governor’s proposal.  To me, that seemed particularly unfair — as not only are the local school’s funds being curtailed across the board but also, without passing through the matching curtailment for the charters, the state would be forcing the local schools to cut even further into their own funding in order to augment their payment to the charters’ at the full rate.

So, our committee floated an amendment to pass the reductions through to the charters at the same curtailment rate as each sending district’s curtailment.  This amendment was approved by a majority of committee members but the vote, unfortunately, fell exactly on party lines – somewhat to my surprise.

Even more surprising, the Department of Education and the House Republicans each immediately followed up with press releases characterizing the committee’s decision as political.  Fortunately, an article in the Bangor Daily News explains the issue more fairly.

Health and Human Services Committee objects to cuts

In their own report back to the Appropriations Committee on the supplemental budget, the Health and Human Services Committee was split on some of the Governor’s recommendations.  A majority of the HHS committee opposed:

With the Washington County delegation, on Wednesday afternoon, I met with representatives of the Downeast Salmon Federation to hear their proposal for re-opening the Saint Croix River to alewives.  The Federation believes that a strong expanded alewife spawning habitat on the Saint Croix would significantly benefit the groundfish population in the Gulf of Maine.  Some guides in the headwater lakes of the Saint Croix worry that alewives will harm bass sport fishing.

Upcoming week

On Tuesday evening, the Governor will deliver his State of the State speech to us in the legislature.

Thursday afternoon, the Education Committee will hold a stakeholders forum to hear concerns about the Essential Programs and Services school funding model.

Many of you have emailed me with your concerns. I appreciate that. Please continue to let me hear from you.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Appropriations hearings

This afternoon the Education and Appropriations Committees jointly heard public testimony on the sections of the Governor’s proposed supplemental budget related to education.

The affected state agencies all testified that, given the regrettable necessity of curtailment, they could make do with their share of the cuts.  But, following their testimony, advocates raised concerns about several accompanying redirections in policy:

  • the proposed increase in the ‘Insured Value Factor’ surcharge to tuition paid to private academies. 
  • the redefinition of the Fund for Efficient Delivery of Educational Services restricting it to major restructurings centered around career and technical education facilities.
  • the elimination of parental ‘choice’ to opt for special services for disabled students of kindergarten age outside of kindergarten coordination and oversight.
  • the breaking of faith shown in diverting casino revenue that was statutorily dedicated to fund education to fill the larger budget hole.

Our committee will deliberate on the related sections of the supplemental budget in work sessions on Monday.

.

 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Briefly attended a breakfast meeting with representatives from Maine’s independent schools – John Bapst, George Stevens, Washington Academy, etc.  The academies are as uneasy about their share of public money as public schools this season.

During the morning House session, we referred several more bills to the Education Committee, including one which seeks to require schools to offer firearms training.

Maine’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts hosted a confab In the Hall of Flags and I got to speak briefly with Megan Facciolo, the District Manager for Hancock County’s SWCD, an organization for which I formerly was an associate supervisor.

At lunch, I sat in with the ‘Measures of Growth’ caucus which advocates for data-driven legislative decision making based upon the Maine Economic Growth Council’s annual report ‘Measures of Growth in Focus.’  Areas of particular concern are research and development expenditures, fourth grade reading scores, cost of health care, transportation infrastructure, and wellness and prevention.

Afternoon, in Committee, we heard an in-depth presentation from Jim Rier, Department of Education’s Finance Director, on the mechanisms underlying the Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ model and Maine’s school funding formula. We also reviewed a spreadsheet that outlined by school district, the percent reductions of school budgets as a consequence of the budget curtailment – which were consistently in the range of 0.5% to 1%.  Two items I noted from Mr RIer’s presentation were: 1) that cushioning the fixed costs of our schools against Maine’s declining student enrollments currently pads EPS by about $25 million. And 2) 46% of Maine students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a substantive indicator of poverty.

Following that, the Committee had more discussion with Commissioner Bowen about the education-related pieces of the supplemental budget.  Committee members expressed concern about the transfer of dedicated $14 million in casino revenue from education to the General Fund, noting that the casino approval last session was arguably a compromise based upon the commitment of that dedicated revenue.  I think that good point is generally understood but the fact remains that if that unallocated money were preserved for GPA in future years, then the legislature will be obligated to cut $14 million elsewhere in the current budget, a process that will be painful enough already.

As Rier and Bowen explain it, there are really two different parts of the supplemental budget that touch upon the substance of the curtailment as it relates to education.  First there is the $12.6 million reduction in General Purpose Aid to education.  That’s essentially the cost to Maine schools as education’s share of the $35.5 million curtailment.  Second there is the transfer of $14.1 million in unallocated money from casino revenue to the General Fund which is probably best understood in the larger context of filling the larger budget hole which is exacerbated by conditions outside of education.

Committee members also expressed concern that limiting eligibility for disabled five-year-olds to receive services under CDS would increase costs to local schools, whether these kids’ needs were met either directly through school kindergarten programs or contracted elsewhere.  The Commissioner argues that the total cost of services may not necessarily be increased and that, overall, there can be savings from efficeincy and more comprehensive oversight.

I asked the Commissioner some more about the language modifying the Fund for Efficeint Delivery of Educational Services, which seems not only to provide incentives for collaboration and consolidation but also to push a bit further towards a certain vision for these consolidations centered on career and technical education (a particular interest of the Governor’s) perhaps making it more difficult for other collaborative or consolidated models.

Given the climate of curtailment, Committee members also seemed reluctant to provide additional support for the private academies by increasing their ‘Insured Value Factor’ which is meant to support the capital costs of their facilities.

Friday afternoon, all these components of the supplemental budget will be the subject of public hearings in Appropriations.

Finally, late afternoon, I sat in on another Appropriations public hearing on the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the cost of living increase for retired teachers.  The hearing was well-attended  and lasted for nearly three hours as many retired teachers shared their stories of hardship in the face of what they took to be a betrayal of an economic and social contract.

 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Continuing agency briefings

More briefings this morning from agencies under the jurisdiction of the Education Committee.

James Page, Chancellor of the University of Maine System, reminded us that the University’s mission remains education, research & economic development, and service to Maine communities.  UMaine challenges are largely economic, similar to those facing other state public institutions. As education is the key to jobs and professions, University has special obligation to keep education affordable.

Maine graduates about 14,000 high school students each year.  Maine Development Foundation has determined that 230,000 Mainers, a staggering number, engaged in some sort of post-secondary education but never completed with any sort of degree.  In 2010, President Obama outlined a goal to have the US as a nation reach a college degree completion rate of 60%.  In order for Maine to meet its share of this goal, the University will have to engage at least as many Maine adults in addition to each year’s high school graduates.

Also, along with most other schools, the University facing the revolutionary challenges of on-line and distance learning.

So, to meet these three challenges – affordability, expanded adult education, and distance learning – the University is committing to partner better with other schools, businesses, and their communities.

We also heard from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network whose representatives included former state senator Karl Turner. In response to years of political squabbles over public financing of the state’s statutory obligation to cover the $2.6 million annual cost of MPBN’s infrastructure, Turner explained that MPBN hopes to engage in a ‘fee-for-service’ relationship with the state to more solidly account for this.

We then heard from the Children’s Growth Council, strong advocates for early childhood education initiatives which presently have notable private backing from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Early Learning Investment Group.  Early childhood education feels like an effort with legs this session.

In the afternoon, the Committee heard a briefing from the Jobs for Maine Graduates program, a non-profit public-private partnership. which serves about 4500 Maine students presumed to be at risk of disengaging from conventional schooling, connecting them with mentors often from local business communities, at a cost of about $1600 per student and remarkably achieving a higher high school graduation rate than the state average.

Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ model and funding formula

We then got a report from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) outlining their work plan as set by the Committee during the last legislature.  Among other things, MEPRI is due to report back to the Committee this year on teacher evaluation models, the impact of standards-based school programs.  The committee accepted the offer from Craig Mason to explain in more depth some of the background of the more ‘sensitive” aspects of ‘growth models’ relating to evaluation.  Previously filled by a range of education stakeholders, MEPRI’s advisory steering committee is vacant at this time because their work recently has been largely directed by the Education Committee.

From our committee analyst, we received a comprehensive report of the history and progress over the last year following on the Legislature’s Resolve to review the success and flaws of the Essential Programs and Services Funding Act.  Contracted from Lawrence Picus and Associates, this report is due April 1.

The Education Committee is scheduled to hold a public forum on the EPS law with Picus and Associates on February 7.

Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project

In the evening, I sat in with the Washington County legislative delegation to hear a presentation from Ocean Renewable Power Company on their Cobscook Bay tidal energy project which is licensed to produce 5 megawatts of grid-connected power. With the knowledge, expertise, and experience learned locally from this project, ORPC is poised to develop additional projects in Alaska and Chile using Maine-based skills.

The company attributes much of its success to early groundwork that they did building community support and the support from the state that they received in streamlining their permitting and aligning state and federal licensing requirements and providing leverage through the Maine Technology Institute and MTI’s Maine Technology Asset Fund.  The success of ORPC’s business model depends on Maine’s maintenance of Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard which the Governor hopes to eliminate.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Energy in Maine

In Augusta, I attended a breakfast meeting on the energy challenges for Maine businesses hosted by the Maine Development Foundation at which legislators heard presentations from economist  Jonathan Rubin from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, Thomas Welch, chair of the Public Utilities Commission, and facilities engineer John Fitzpatrick from the Jackson Lab.

While future costs of energy and its externailities are uncertain, Maine’s economy is poised to benefit substantially from increasing availability of natural gas which is already decreasing the cost of electricity generation.  Also, as fuel standards increase efficiency, public revenue from fuel taxes will decrease unless tax rates increase.

Maine’s electricity rates are the 8th highest in the US but the lowest in New England.   These electricity rates are the result of regional market forces.  If Maine were to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s cap-and-trade program, electricity rates would not decline, but Maine’s producers of renewable energy would lose revenue.

Rate supported efficiency programs such as Efficiency Maine may benefit some users more than others but the overall effect of reduced energy consumption benefits Maine’s economy. Jackson Lab in particular has benefitted from competitive grants from this program.

Increased broadband network can also lower overall energy consumption by reducing and decentralizing transportation.

Maine’s energy future probably lies with diversified fuel sources – biomass, natural gas, wind, tidal, and hydro.  Local heat and power cogeneration facilities make sense for places like Jax.

Clean Elections

A busload of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections from MDI and surrounding area rallied this morning at the state house to lobby legislators in support of public financing of elections and in favor of a constitutional amendment to repeal the supreme court’s decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations.

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Hardships for Community Hospitals

Over lunch, I had a good conversation over lunch with Art Blank, President of MDI Hospital about the consequences to community hospitals from the reductions proposed in the Governor’s supplemental budget.

Proposed restrictions in services to disabled children

In the afternoon, with several other of my committee members, I joined the Appropriations Committee in listening to an overview from the Department of Education on the Child Development Services in preparation for consideration of the Governor’s proposal to remove eligibility for disabled kindergarten age students to receive services under the CDS program and, apparently, to expand the contracted use of private services for disabled children younger than kindergarten age.

Pressing forward with the Bridge Year

As he mentioned on Friday in Bangor, Commissioner Bowen formally announced the Governor’s commitment to expanding the Bridge Year model allowing high school students to receive community college credits.

Armed teachers?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The problem with pursuing Canadian hydropower….

Teacher as catalyst

.. the most critical elements of our economic development policy are our middle and high school teachers. A teacher is, or ought to be, a catalyst — an element that, without itself being consumed, enables or speeds the reaction among other elements in a process. While the term ordinarily refers to a chemical process, it is equally applicable to the learning process. Good teachers transform their students, enabling them to become what they wouldn’t have been without the teacher.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bridge Year

On Friday morning, at the United Technologies Center in Bangor I attended a reception hosted by the Bridge Year program, a collaboration between UTC, Hermon High School, Eastern Maine Community College, and the University of Maine System in which high school students receive up to 29.5 community college credits at a subsidized tuition rate.

The presenters described the program as allowing the students to proceed into local technical careers or the military “twice as far, twice as fast” and the students we met showed particular interest and dedication towards pursuing careers in business management, public safety, information technology, culinary arts, small engine repari, building construction, and the electrical trades.

Bridge Year advocates believe that the program is readily transferrable to other interested high schools within range of other career and technical education facilities.  The Governor and Commissioner hope to provide additional support through the biennial budget.

Perhaps most notably, the representative attending from the University said they had learned a great deal about teaching from participating in the program which requires the teachers to have multiple certifications.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guns and law enforcement

On Thursday morning, in Augusta I attended the Maine Sheriffs Association breakfast on guns.  The question on everyone’s minds, of course, was what the Sheriffs thought about the President’s initiatives in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.  But the Sheriff’s are naturally circumspect regarding politics.  Nevertheless, it was plain that they wanted legislators to understand that there was little practical distinction between semi-automatic hunting rifles generally taken to be an indispensible part of Maine culture and the sorts of weapons which had been subject to the expired federal ‘assault weapons’ ban. When pressed, the sheriffs plainly wanted legislators attention directed towards issues of ‘mental health’.

Budget reductions affecting Critical Access Hospitals like MDI

At our morning caucus, we learned more about the supplemental budget’s proposals relating to health care.  I’m particularly concerned about reductions in reimbursement to Critical Access Hospitals in rural areas including our own MDI Hospital. Critical Access Hospitals are at a disadvantage under the terms of Maine’s health provider tax which requires a local ‘match’ which is much more favorable to regular hospitals.  Last year, Critical Access Hospitals lost $552,000 under this differential.  Under the proposed reduction, they stand to lose another $290,000.  This means hospitals like ours would be subsidizing the state budget by $842,000.

Legislation to provide education and training for struggling families.

Also Thursday, I joined our House Speaker Mark Eves as a co-sponsor of his bill to support education and training for needy families.

You can read more about Speaker Eves’ priorities here:

More committee briefings and remedial education

Thursday afternoon, the Education Committee heard briefings from the Maine Community College System, the Maine State Library, the Maine Historical Society, and the Maine Humanities Council.  We also adopted our Committee rules.

Along with other committee members, I was interested in hearing about the Community College’s reporting on enrollments in remedial classes  – particularly in how their experience compares to that of the university system, given that the median age of an entering community college student is 27, rather  than 18 or 19.  The Committee will receive a formal report on this next week.

  • Report: Maine students ahead of nation in college readiness, Noel Gallagher, Kennebec Journal

    …Maine’s high school graduates are less likely to need remedial courses in college than their counterparts across the nation. …Gov. Paul LePage has regularly been a sharp critic of Maine’s public high schools. Just last week, at a press conference about charter schools, he said Maine public schools are failing because teachers are lying to their students.

  • Maine below N.E. average on students needing remedial work, Maine School Management Association Bulletin

    …report shows only 12 percent of high school students who entered the University System as freshman in September of 2012 needed remedial work in those core areas, as opposed to the New England average of 24 to 39 percent