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Critique of Maine's Proposed Charter School Bill

LD 1553: An Act to Create A Public Charter School Program in Maine, sponsored by Senator Garrett Mason

Bill Summary:

This bill establishes a process to authorize the establishment of charter schools in the State.

Synopsis and concerns:

Bill seeks to provide a mechanism for new private non-profit and for-profit entities to gain access to public funding in order to provide more narrowly directed educational programs to undefined subsets of students.

The law would obligate local property taxpayers to fund these independent charter school operations at the same per-pupil rate by which they fund their local public school. This obligation apparently would extend to “virtual” charter operations located elsewhere, if local students chose to attend.

Such charter operations may be authorized (and the terms of their contracts set for a period of 5-15 years) independent of local approval or oversight through a new, non-elected “State Charter School Commission.” This Commission would be appointed by the State Board of Education, themselves appointees of the Governor. Qualifications, duties, and accountability for members of this Commission are unspecified. Read more »

Defense Vouchers: A Modest Proposal

With the growing consensus of the job-killing unsustainability of federal spending, an idea that has long been whispered in the corridors of power is now finding a wider voice among a striking coalition of fiscal conservatives, religious pacifists, Six Sigma business black belts, and traditional gun nuts.

On Thursday, Senator Horst Gelignite, ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee made the case for defense vouchers - excerpted below - from the Senate floor.

“For over two centuries strict constructionists have conceded the federal government a monopoly on national defense. Over that same period, per-capita spending by the military has increased in adjusted dollars at twice the rate of inflation. Yet is the world a safer place?  I submit that it is not.  By all objective measures, government militaries are an expensive failure. It’s time to boldly flip the status quo on its ear.

“Foreign relations are twentieth-century relations. American priorities need to reflect the times.  A disturbingly growing number of citizens no longer feel safe in their own homes. They’re choosing to practice their own defense paradigm, which is their natural right.

“Many of these people are choosing to invest directly in their own defense, whether it’s extra sash locks on their windows, weekend karate lessons, or a comprehensive basement arsenal.

“It’s not fair to make these people pay out twice, once for hardware and then again in government taxes. In today’s uncertain world, the defense dollar should follow the citizen. Read more »

Young People and Activism

My organizing mentors (those who have been in the struggle for 20, 30 years) often ask me why more young people aren’t out in the streets rallying, acting and pushing the way they did in the 60s. As someone who works directly with people aged 16 to 35, I often ask myself the same question.

The one answer I hate is: “They’re apathetic.” Well, excuse me, but I am not apathetic. I give a damn, but my actions today won’t be the same as if I had been 27 in 1968. It’s time that we all acknowledge that the world young people are living in and the realities we are facing are quite different from those of a generation ago. We must refrain from pointing the accusatory-finger-of-apathy at young people and take a look in a mirror. There are tons of reasons that youth activism today looks and feels very different from the 60s. However, for people who are most concerned with getting more young people involved in politics and political action, there are three challenges that young people face that I believe are the most significant. Read more »

Maine Leads Nation in Student Debt

Post-secondary education funding is one of those issues that I could go on about forever. My time as president of my student union in college and as chair of the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations exposed me to too many books, studies, policy papers and personal stories on the subject to begin to summarize in a 750-word column.

This week in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, however, I try to lay out in basic terms where Maine is in terms of the financial burden we place on our students (the first or second worst state in the nation, depending on how you interpret the data), what this means for our long-term economic prospects (bad things) and some first steps to make things better (improving the Opportunity Maine program, re-investing in our public higher education system).

I restrained myself from spending the entire piece wonking out about the relative effectiveness of up-front versus after-graduation grant and tax credit programs on increasing access and decreasing debt, but despite that forbearance still barely scratched the surface of the issue.

I believe that the lack of investment in higher education and in Maine's young people is the largest sleeping threat to our state. It's ignored by politicians because it doesn't have the immediate effects of an issue like the economic recession and because current students, graduates repaying their loans and the tens of thousands of Maine children and families that give up on school for financial reasons don't have the organization and lobbying power of even Maine's whoopie pie industry.

Soon, however, as Maine faces an outmoded economy and demographic winter, it's going to become clear just how short-sighted we were.

Church Schools Seek Public Funds

Maine’s private schools, like most other enterprises, are feeling the vise of recession. 

Over the past decade, Maine’s shrinking student demographics have disproportionately drained private school enrollments which are now 34% off their peak. Over the same period, public school enrollments have declined by 26%.

Religious schools, in particular, are now turning to the government for relief.

“Adequately financing these schools has always been a challenge,” Marc Mutty, lobbyist for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, told the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on April 6. “They need financial assistance if they are to survive.”

Recently remembered for warning against the consequences to schools from government sanctioning of gay marriage, Mutty and other religious school advocates hope to stem the decline in private enrollments by persuading the Legislature to appropriate ten million dollars in new public subsidy via tax credits to those who support private schools through tuition.

Two vehicles are proposed for this transfer of tax dollars: Read more »

Governor LePage: Fiscal Liberal, Social Activist

Having politicked fervently on the twin themes of tightened public money and tighter public accountability, Governor LePage appeared to suffer full concurrent reversals on both principles while addressing a convention of Maine home-schoolers two weeks ago in Rockport.

(Full video and transcript here)

"We need to find ways to allow home-schoolers to take more advantage of public resources ...And I understand that there's a fear from the home-schooling community that, if you do, old Government’s going to get on top of you. Well, I don't believe that that - necessarily - has to be the way. If we formulate how it's going to be done - then we can get our cake and eat it."

Perhaps giddy from the sudden conversion to liberalism, LePage went on to suggest that the state would then augment the taxpayer largess with a new program of laissez-faire home-school college degrees. Read more »

Commissioner Bowen Reaches Out to Schools

Into the second week of his state-wide Listening Tour Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen seems to be gaining with audiences using a message celebrating local accomplishment, advocating for more educational flexibility, and soliciting ideas for reworking his Department of Education into a better partner for collaborative school improvements.

Bowen spoke at Ellsworth High School on Monday, March 21st. The third stop on the tour, Hancock County is notable not only for having the highest percentage of districts that remain out of compliance with the state's school consolidation initiative but also for being one of only two counties which failed to give the Governor a plurality in the November election.

So, towards the prospect of any fresh initiatives from Augusta, the Commissioner was certainly aware that listeners were arriving at his presentation packing a certain skepticism, if not loaded outright for bear.

Superintendents have been reminding him, the Commissioner said, that the Maine Department of Education used to be like the Cooperative Extension Service. "You could call them up with a problem and they'd help you figure out how to solve it. Now, they say, if you get a call from the Department, it means you’re in trouble about something, usually something to do with federal accounting." Read more »

Childhood Poverty and School Achievement

This week's release of the 2011 Kids Count Data Book reminds us that child poverty is on the rise in Maine, as it is everywhere in the United States.

In Maine, the most recent census figures show that 17.5% of children under the age of 18 lived in households below the federal poverty threshold. In a broader sign of systemic failure, this number has steadily increased over the past ten years, both in Maine and nationwide.

Why the United States continues to grow one of the worst rates of relative childhood poverty in the world is a question that a nation with our wealth ought to be asking itself with deep concern.

But this trend is one that teachers and school administrators recognize as they deal with growing percentages of students who reflect progressively familiar patterns of ill-preparedness which stem from family displacement and economic trauma.

To reach these students, schools are finding it necessary to broaden both their internal scope and outreach into their communities, becoming the coordinating hubs of networks for child nutrition, medical care, and social services. Without these additional efforts, schools are finding their traditional mission to be increasingly unreachable by those at their margins. Read more »

The Future of Public Teaching

Not yet in focus in the debates about Governor LePage's proposed changes to teachers' retirements is the immediate consequence to staffing within Maine schools.

As the crest of the teachers' demographic now mark sixtieth birthdays, onerous retirement penalties and incentives will precipitate big changes.

With good teachers now caricatured nationally for their presumed greed and incompetence, one may take these reductions as calculated. But, while Sawin Millett has said that the Governor's budget is predicted upon a decrease of 1100 teachers, it seems quite possible that the real reduction could end up much greater.

The Governor proposes, beginning January 1, to require new retirees under the age of 65 to pay the full cost of private health insurance. Under most teachers' pensions, the basic arithmetic will make this prohibitively expensive. So, regardless of the merits of the Governor's plan, you can be certain that most retirement-eligible teachers in the 60-65 age range right now are weighing giving their notice. Read more »

'Flipping the Curve'

At the Governors' meeting in Washington on Monday, probably no one welcomed Bill Gates' gift basket book, Stretching the School Dollar,  more than Governor LePage.

Indeed, with every state executive facing down his own little bit of Madison, who would want to disbelieve that, to flip the achievement-spending curves, all we need to do to beat the test scores of the pesky Finns and Singaporeans is fire the bottom 15% of the nation's teachers and convey the savings as merit bonuses to the remaining stalwarts in compensation for the minor inconvenience of larger class sizes?

Then, one presumes, a similar supply-side subroutine could be turned loose on the medical field by retiring the bottom tier of doctors (as rigorously evidenced by -say- patient mortality) subsequently realizing both a dramatic uptick in longevity and a decimation of expense.

Plainly still jacked from this news at the conclusion of his own testimony at Wednesday's Appropriations hearing, Governor LePage sought to reassure Representative Fredette, whose teaching spouse stands to lose benefits under the Governor's budget, that teachers who survive the performance cut will enjoy some spoils. Read more »