DOE testifies on school choice bills

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held public hearings May 2 on five bills designed to allow students and parents greater school choice.

Maine Department of Education policy and programs director Deborah Friedman offered the following testimony on the legislation.

L.D. 250, An Act To Permit Tuition Subsidies by Municipalities

Maine DOE Position: Neither For Nor Against

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Deborah Friedman, and I am here today representing the Department speaking neither for nor against L.D. 250 An Act to Permit Tuition Subsidies by Municipalities.

This bill would allow the governing bodies of municipalities to vote to spend local tax dollars to give subsidies to parents to reimburse them for tuition payments made to private schools that are not authorized under Title 20-A to receive public funds.

The Department believes that it is consistent with the concept of local control to enable municipalities to decide to spend their funds to assist parents in choosing private schools for their children.  Based on the summary of the bill, it appears that the change in law is needed because of a Maine Law Court decision finding that such public subsidies to parents is not prohibited by the Constitution, but that Maine law does not specifically authorize municipalities to make such expenditures.  This bill is intended to remedy that lack of specific authorization.

Under the bill, the municipal subsidy could apply to any “private school precluded from receiving public funds under Title 20-A, section 2951…”  For your information, I have attached a copy of section 2951.  Under that section, a private school might be ineligible for the direct payment of public tuition for a number of reasons – either because they are religious schools or because they do not meet basic approval standards, such as a minimum number of instructional days, health and safety requirements or immunization requirements.  You might want to discuss limiting the subsidy to tuition paid to schools that meet some minimum level of quality (such as approval for attendance purposes) or you might want to leave that to local decision.

For these reasons, the Department is neither for nor against L.D. 250 An Act to Permit Tuition Subsidies by Municipalities.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1283, An Act To Allow Students Choice in High School Enrollment

Maine DOE position: Neither For Nor Against

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Deborah Friedman, and I am here today representing the Department speaking neither for nor against L.D. 1283 An Act to Allow Students Choice in High School Enrollment.

The Department supports the creation of educational options for all Maine students. However, we have some concerns about the details of this bill.

First, while it limits the number of students who may leave a school administrative unit to 20, there is no limit on the number of students that a receiving unit must accept.  This could create significant challenges for the receiving school.  In addition, the possibility of a student transferring back to the sending school during the four years of high school means that school enrollments may fluctuate significantly from one year to the next, with the attendant need for a transfer of records and adjustment of classes.

Second, we have questions about the application of the tuition rate provision.  The tuition paid to a receiving school would be calculated in the same manner as for current voluntary transfers of tuition students.  Tuition paid to a receiving school is limited to the lesser of 2 numbers – the first is the average per pupil expenditure in the tuition-charging school in the prior school year (excluding special education, Career and Technical Education (CTE), capital and debt expenditures and transportation) with a limited adjustment for inflation;  the second is the state average per pupil expenditure, adjusted.  This results in tuition rates at some schools being lower than the actual per pupil expenditures.  In cases where the transfer of a student is voluntary, the receiving school is accepting a tuition rate that is lower than their costs.  Under L.D. 1283, however, the receiving unit would have no choice but to accept the lower rate.

The Department would suggest that the Committee consider asking the Department to look into issues such as this and to return next session with some information and recommendations on how to make this type of school choice a more viable option.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is neither for nor against L.D. 1283 An Act to Allow Students Choice in High School Enrollment.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1316, An Act To Expand Magnet Schools in Maine

Maine DOE position: Neither For Nor Against

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Deborah Friedman, and I am here today representing the Department speaking neither for nor against L.D. 1316 An Act to Expand Magnet Schools In Maine.

The Department of Education supports the concept of magnet schools, but without seeing more detail about how such schools would be funded or operated, it is difficult to provide extensive comment on this bill.

We would be happy to work with the Committee, and provide commentary, as this legislation develops.  In addition, we expect that you will be considering a charter school bill that would allow local school administrative units to enter into contracts to create a specialized or innovative school.  That may provide a vehicle for municipalities or groups of municipalities to achieve the same goals as in this bill.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is neither for nor against L.D. 1316 An Act to Expand Magnet Schools In Maine.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1388, An Act To Allow Schools To Adopt Approved Alternative Curricula

Maine DOE position: Neither For Nor Against

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Deborah Friedman, and I am here today representing the Department speaking neither for nor against L.D. 1388 An Act To Allow Schools To Adopt Approved Alternative Curricula.

The bill amends a section of education law, enacted in 1991, that encourages school restructuring, and provides general authority to the Commissioner to waive rules if necessary to achieve the restructuring.

L.D. 1388 would explicitly allow the Commissioner to waive rules related to the system of Learning Results to allow a public school to adopt an “alternative curriculum framework” that differs from, but does not conflict with, the rules.  It’s not clear to the Department what this might entail, since the Learning Results rules do not specify a particular curriculum.  To the extent that this would exempt a school from providing programming to enable a student to achieve the Learning Results, we would not support it.  We need more information to determine what level of exemption is being sought.

The bill would also allow a school administrative unit (SAU) to appeal the Commissioner’s denial of a waiver to the State Board of Education, whose decision would be final.  It is not clear what standard the State Board would use in considering this appeal – would the State Board substitute its judgment for the Commissioner’s judgment, or simply review for errors in applying the law?  Without this language, the Commissioner’s denial could be appealed to Superior Court under the Maine Administrative Procedures Act.

Finally, the bill allows a public school unit to contract with the governing body of an approved private school to implement curriculum and strategies at the public school.  It’s not clear to the Department what would be involved in this contract.  Since approved private schools include sectarian schools, you might consider what intermingling of school resources would occur as a result of this contract.

One final note, relating to the language of the bill.  In the very first sentence of the bill, the language that is being added seems to narrow the focus of the entire law to collaboration with approved private schools and postsecondary institutions.  I don’t think that was the intent, so there may need to be some reordering of the words.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is neither for nor against L.D. 1388 An Act To Allow Schools To Adopt Approved Alternative Curricula.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1424, An Act To Enhance Parental Roles in Education Choice

Maine DOE position: In Opposition

Senator Langley, Representatives Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Deborah Friedman, and I am here today representing the Department speaking in opposition to L.D. 1424 An Act To Enhance Parental Roles in Education Choice.

The primary reason for our opposition is that this bill bypasses the normal local governing process for reforming schools: electing reform-minded school board or school committee members. Instead, this bill allows parents to force the superintendent to create a plan to restructure the school in a particular manner and then directs the Commissioner of Education to step in and “determine whether the (superintendent’s) plan will improve educational opportunities for students within the school administrative unit”. It also appears to require the Commissioner to negotiate plan changes with the school administrative unit (SAU) and the petitioners.

This is an extraordinary intrusion of the Commissioner into local education decisions, especially in the absence of real evidence that a school system is failing so seriously that it cannot correct itself.  The trigger in the bill is failure to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP.  This could result from a school’s failure to meet a proficiency target for one subgroup of students in one of 2 subject areas or standards for participation or attendance.  While this may be cause for concern, it may not rise to the level of restructuring called for in this bill.  In addition, the AYP trigger may not be available in the long-run if Congress amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of the reauthorization currently being discussed in Washington.

Finally, school restructuring can be a disruptive and costly endeavor.

For these reasons, we are in opposition to L.D. 1424 An Act To Enhance Parental Roles in Education Choice.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

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