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Maine Gov's Education Bills Generate Fierce Opposition
05/10/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine school districts would be required to pick up the tab for any remedial course work their students need when they get to college, under a bill being proposed by the LePage administration. Another measure, also backed by the governor, would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Maine and let public school students use state funds to attend religious schools. Both bills are drawing fierce opposition from education groups. Jay Field reports.

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At an Education Department news conference Wednesday, administration officials said there were a few other pieces of legislation coming out, but that they weren't major new proposals. The next day came the remediation and school choice bills.

But anyone who was surprised to see them show up, wasn't paying close attention to the governor's State-of-the-State address back in February. "Too many of our graduates are unprepared for higher education or the workforce," LePage said. "Fifty percent of the kids that graduate from high school, that go on to community college, need to take remedial courses."

These kids, LePage continued, went through public school and the job wasn't done. Now, their parents, many of whom are stuggling financially, the governor noted, are being asked to pay for remedial classes.

"Well folks, I am proposing legislation that says if a child who attends a community college or the university system has to take remedial courses in English or Math, that the sending high school pays it," he said.

For months, no proposal appeared. But that changed yesterday. Rep. David Cotta, a China Republican, is sponsoring the governor's bill. "This proposal says that the product that's being generated is not meeting the standard," Cotta says. "Somebody has to incur those costs."

This coming fall, the Maine Community College System estimates that more than 1,000 students will need to take more than 1,400 remedial courses. The price tag for tuition, fees and books? Around $600,000.

Cotta's bill would give the commissioner of education the right to deduct these remedial education costs from the money school districts get from the state.

"I think it's ludicrous," says Connie Brown. Brown, who heads the Maine School Management Association, says cutting the amount of state money going to already cash-strapped school districts won't help improve learning outcomes for students, especially poor kids.

"Poor kids are already trying to overcome significant barriers, so to take more money away from them, in hopes that they'll do better next time, doesn't make any sense to me," she says.

Brown also has harsh words for another LePage bill released this week: LD 1529, An Act To Expand School Choice for Maine Students, would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Maine. It would also let students use public money to attend religious schools.

But Brown says that would divert money from public schools. And the Legislature, she notes, already rendered its verdict on public funding for religious schools last year.

"The Republican majority said, 'No, this is not the way we want public money spent, and it ought to defeated,' and was," she says. "I'm surprised that it's coming around, yet again, as part of a choice package."

But in his State-of-the-State speech, LePage left little doubt he would push school choice legislation again. "All students and parents deserve options, especially for the economically disadvantaged," he said.

LePage says choice is the best way to neutralize the educational advantages enjoyed by wealthier families in wealthier school districts. It's a debate lawmakers will have again in the coming weeks.


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