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Maine Gov Proposes Bill to Help Struggling Schools Improve
05/09/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

One question raised by Gov. Paul LePage's controversial grading system for public schools is what the state proposes doing about the schools getting Ds and Fs. The Education Department plans to reach out to these schools in the coming weeks to learn more about why - by the administration's standards - they're struggling. A bill drafted by the governor's education team, and released this week, proposes a number of interventions to help underperforming schools improve over a two-year period. But, as Jay Field reports, it stops short of calling for state takeovers of struggling schools and districts.

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It's not that Maine hasn't considered it: "I mean, we discussed that," says Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen.

Late last fall, Bowen addressed state takeovers in a memo to his boss, obtained by MPBN.

"We do not have the authority to do that under current law, " Bowen wrote to Gov. Paul LePage. "What we could do is propose legislation that takes a school out from under the authority of the school district and puts it under state control."

Twenty-nine states have laws or policies in place that allow them to seize control of a school district, according to the Education Commission of the States. And a handful of states allow takeovers of individual schools.

"Overall, and anecdotally, it's been very tough work. Districts under takeovers don't move out quickly," says the commission's Kathy Christie. Christie says some states, having learned this lesson, are now moving toward a different model, where they create new turnaround districts.

"Louisiana was the first one to do it after Hurricane Katrina. They formed the Recovery School District," Christie says. "And now there are a handful of states that have an intermediary district that just takes in identified schools that are low-performing that are on target for improvement."

Michigan and Tennessee have set up similar improvement districts, and Virginia has passed a law paving the way to move in this direction. Christie says success depends on hiring the right people into key leadership positions.

"It's just like in business," she says. "When you have a business turnaround specialist, many times they're not good on the long haul. But they're good on the turnaround."

But a study released two years ago by researchers in Seattle raises doubts about whether this would be a good strategy in a state like Maine. In the report, researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington concluded that state-run turnaround districts in more rural states could have a hard time attracting the talented professionals needed to transform the ailing schools they're supposed to fix.

"We have a bill - we're not going as far as taking over schools or pulling schools out of their districts," Bowen says.

Even if Bowen and Gov. LePage wanted to do that, it's unlikely the Legislature, with Democrats in the majority, would approve. "What we want to do is make sure all the districts are looking at the data," Bowen says, "that they've got some type of plan in place to address that."

LD 1510, An Act To Ensure Statewide School Accountability and Improvement, will be the subject of a public hearing before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in the coming weeks. The measure requires all struggling schools to come up with an improvement plan. If, after two years, they fail to get better, the bill would give students the option of leaving for other schools of their choice.

That's an option Democrats are not likely to get behind.


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