By Leslie H. Dixon
PARIS — At the end of its first phase, one thing is clear. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Education was succinct.
The work of the 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission, which began contentiously in April 2016 with what was called a “secret” breakfast meeting, hosted by Gov. Paul LePage at the governor’s mansion, concluded its first phase last week in a five-page report that cited one broadly defined goal and four objectives in roughly 600 words.
The report of the Blue Ribbon Commission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance in Maine, that was submitted to the governor on Wednesday, Feb. 8, also included an overview and introduction plus a 15-page addendum.
The commission, created by the Legislature in 2015 and charged with identifying solutions to lower the cost of public education and improve student performance, is expected to further define its recommendations over the next year during the second phase of its work.
Oxford Hills School District Superintendent Rick Colpitts, a member of the Commission, said he believes the work of the commission will have little bearing on future policy or funding “given the stakeholders and the perceptions of the current executive branch.”
In a letter to the Maine School Superintendent Association and the Maine School Board Association, dated Jan. 27, Colpitts said his initial hope that the Blue Ribbon Commission’s charge could “transform” education is now restrained.
“That optimism [to transform education] remains a guarded hope buried deep in the quagmire of politics,” he said.
The governor said the reform mission of the commission “died” during the first meeting at the Blaine House. Other issues arose, including Attorney General Janet Mills filing a complaint in court against the LePage administration for violating public access laws, canceled and rescheduled commission meetings, quorum issues arose, and the commission’s progress, or lack thereof, began to wane on front pages of newspapers as the year went on and the drama subsided.
The Jan. 10 deadline came and went with a short letter from Commission Chairman Robert G. Hasson Jr. to LePage stating the report was “incomplete” and “ongoing.”
Struggling for footing
In his letter to the organizations, Colpitts told superintendents and school board association members that the Blue Ribbon Commission “struggled to find its footing in the beginning.”
“Charges of violating the open meeting law, changes in the Commission’s facilitator, two acting commissioners and frequently canceling and rescheduling of meetings made making any headway challenging at best,” he continued in the letter. “Making matters worse was the facilitator’s practise of allowing substitutes to sit in for absent commission members making any continuity between meetings difficult.”
But Colpitts said the monthly meetings during the past year were instructive.
In his report to the two associations, Colpitts said he and other members learned about efforts to create a state-wide teachers contract in Rhode Island, reviewed a New York model for providing collaborative education services, a special services collaborative model in Bangor, information about the current funding formula, education fund trends and much more information.
In the end, the commission had only one session to “brainstorm” its findings before the Jan. 17 deadline to report back to the Legislature.
Then a follow-up meeting to continue that work had to be canceled, said Colpitts. At that time the commissioner asked all members to submit their recommendations in writing.
Colpitts didn’t hold back. He submitted 10 recommendations, some of which were included in the final draft report. They were:
- Fully fund the EPS (Essential Programs and Services) model as it is most likely to have the most impact on all students across the state. (The EPS state money is intended to ensure that schools have the programs and services, which are essential if all students are to have equitable opportunities to achieve the Maine Learning Results.)
- Increase the amount of funding allocated under the EPS formula for socio-economic disadvantaged students to help address inequities.
- Create a “circuit breaker” for districts which receive unanticipated, high needs, special needs students after a local budget is approved.
- Revisit pre-kindergarten funding under EPS to recognize changes in state regulations for staffing and class sizes.
- Look for ways for the state to incentivize and assist districts in the start-up of universal kindergarten programs.
- Examine opportunities for the state to negotiate a statewide teachers contract for ages and benefits but leave working conditions for local school boards to negotiate.
- Look at ways within the EPS model to incentivize districts in hard-to-staff regions to offer high levels of compensation.
- Promote the profession of teaching by examining expanding college and university loan forgiveness programs.
- Resist efforts of the MEA (Maine Education Association) to limit class size to a 15:1 ratio and to make policy subject to bargaining.
So what did Colpitts say he learned from the experience?
“There is a growing tension between the state’s tax revenue sources (one heavily dependent upon car sales) and the state’s growing educational needs,” he told the two associations. “There are issues of significant inequity in school funding across the state’s 251 school districts. Maine school districts have, without state incentives, already found ways to collaborate in efforts to provide greater efficiency and greater student programming.
“There are lessons to be learned from Maine school districts who have found inefficiencies,” he continued. “Finally, despite some of the challenges in the current funding formula, it is difficult to determine its effectiveness when it has never been fully funded by the state.”
To the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Board Association he said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that the voices within those organizations will be heard at the table.
But, he continued, “Given the stakeholders and the perceptions of the executive branch of our state it is unlikely that the work of the Commission will have much bearing on future policy or funding.”
The Blue Ribbon Commission will continue to meet to refine its comments over the next year. During that time Colpitts said each potential recommendation will be analyzed in terms of its feasibility and contribution to achieving the goal of the improvements.
Additionally, he said, cost analyses will be completed for each recommendation, and where appropriate, alternative models for implementing the recommendations will be developed.
The final Phase ll report will be submitted in January 2018 to the governor and the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.
The Blue Ribbon’s First Draft
In its five-page report submitted to the Legislature last week, the Blue Ribbon Commission submitted the following goals and objectives to make education better:
Goal: Improve student achievement and eliminate the income achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and advantaged students through a system of education reforms and cost efficiencies.
The objectives and strategies the Blue Ribbon Commission recommends to achieve this goal are as follows:
Objective 1: Improve classroom instruction at all grade levels.
A. Direct the exploration, investigation, and formulation of alternate proposals for statewide or regional contracts in support of improved compensation and retention of effective teachers across the state.
B. Build on current efforts toward both improved educator effectiveness and school-level accountability systems for all schools.
C. Develop a program of salary and benefits adjustments to recruit and retain effective teachers and leaders in hard-to-staff disciplines and schools and investigate other possible barriers to effective staffing in disadvantaged schools.
D. Implement evidence-based professional development programs across the state targeted to meet established standards of effective professional development.
Objective 2: All students graduate high school proficient and on time through expanded access to high-quality educational opportunities.
A. Exclude federal Title I funds in the calculation of the yearly cost of education as defined by the Maine EPS funding formula.
B. Implement evidence-based effective instructional coach programs targeted toward economic disadvantage.
C. Expand the availability and access of extended day and summer school programs for all students.
D. Expand the availability and access of career and technical education opportunities, apprenticeships and programs for all students.
E. Implement alternative out-of-school, community and career and technical education options for demonstrating academic proficiency.
F. Expand and stabilize funding of programs for high school students to complete college level courses and programs while attending high school.
Objective 3: All children are kindergarten ready and proficient readers by the end of third grade.
A. Expand the availability of high quality, evidence-based early education programs directed in support of universal access to pre-kindergarten and targeted first and foremost toward higher poverty communities.
B. Implement 1-to-1 and/or small group tutoring programs in early grades, specifically focused on evidence-based effective reading strategies and programs and support increased pre-kindergarten through grade three allocation to schools based on smaller class sizes.
Objective 4: Greater efficiency is achieved in the use of resources.
A. Support state funding to build capacity for efficient regional services and targeting specific school improvement programs.
B. In support of the state’s school accountability system, develop school-level performance goals, better targeted school supports, and measures of return on investments for improvement strategies.
C. Increase and/or realign EPS allocations and GPA (general purpose aid for local schools) subsidy to provide greater support of disadvantaged students.
D. Incentivize models for regionalization of appropriate direct instructional and support services across multiple school districts and/or agencies.
E. Incentivize cooperative regional service centers with initial base funding.