Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 12

Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 12

July 13, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 2 Comments

Part F of the state’s Race to the Top application is a catch-all section touching on school funding, charter schools, and other school reform approaches that may not have been addressed elsewhere in the application.

The first part of this section, worth 10 points, relates to school funding, and asks the states whether (1) they managed to “make education funding a priority” by keeping “the percentage of total revenues” available for education for FY 2009 “greater than or equal to” the percentage of total revenues available in FY 2008, and (2) whether they have an “equitable” school funding system.

With regard to the first question, there seems to be no interest on the part of the Obama administration as to whether the “total revenues available” for education were spent wisely in either FY 2008 or FY 2009 – they just want to know that the money was spent. The state claims that it was.

With regard to the second question, the state responds by bragging that the Essential Programs and Services funding system ensures “adequate and equitable resources are provided for all students.” I’m sure that many districts, particularly those in coastal Washington and Hancock Counties, would dispute this. They might suggest, for example, that the state’s overreliance on property valuation as an indicator of municipal wealth means the state’s funding system is anything but equitable. Their voices are not heard here, however.

The second part of this section, worth 40 points, relates to charter schools and “other innovative schools,” and here the state takes an interesting approach. The feds ask four questions related to charter schools, and the state’s response is to write, in response to all four questions collectively, that these questions “are not applicable in Maine.”

That’s it. The state does not come right out and say that Maine does not allow charter schools, nor defend that policy choice in any way.

This seems to me to have been a mistake. Outlawing charter schools is, of course, indefensible, but one would think the Department would at least try to cook up some way to justify it.  Kentucky, which was a first round Race to the Top finalist despite not having charter schools, submitted a spirited defense of their non-charter approach as part of their original application. They didn’t win, ultimately, but they didn’t go down without a fight either.

After its six-word “response” on charter schools, the Department goes on to briefly describe the “recently enacted” law allowing the creation of “Innovative Schools.” What are those?  According to the application, these “innovative, autonomous public schools” must be run by a “school administrative unit,” must have “open enrollment,” and must have “higher student accountability standards” which “do not conflict with the State’s accountability and assessment system.” They also “have the flexibility to innovate” as long as they don’t “conflict with applicable statutory or regulatory requirements.”

What is that you say? No, I don’t think they are kidding. Yes, I know it sounds preposterous, but that is what they put forward. Look, the legislature thought it was a great idea. Believe me, I don’t understand it either.

Anyway, in a sign that even the Department doesn’t believe the ‘innovative schools” nonsense will get them anywhere, they move on immediately to describe once more, in a long, rambling, and often incoherent paragraph, the student-centered approach they first lay out in the opening section of the application.  The state will work, they say “with School Administrative District 15, Gray-New Gloucester as a lab at the state, local and school level to transform the entire education system.”

Wow. Transform the entire education system based on work in one school unit?  Evidently so.  Back in the standards and assessment section of the application, the Department announced, in a paragraph as inartfully crafted as this one, that “SAU #15 (Gray/New Gloucester) and the State are embarking on a system transformation at the state, district, and local levels.” I hope the good folks in SAD 15 understand how much the state has riding on whatever it is that they are doing there.

Interestingly, the state also has some good things to say about school choice. “In addition to Innovative Schools and Innovative Lab schools,” the Department writes, “Maine has the oldest operating local school choice program in the country.” This is fascinating, I think, because if anything, the state has worked diligently to eliminate school choice. As we’ve reported elsewhere, since John Baldacci became governor, the school choice rights the state celebrates in this section of the application have either been lost or are being phased out in Arrowsic, Phippsburg, West Bath, Woolwich, Durham, Pownal, Etna, Dixmont, Carmel, Levant, Minot and Mechanic Falls.  Despite the fact that the district consolidation law was supposed to protect school choice, the Department has signed off on one consolidation plan after another that has eliminated it.

They are big fans of school choice now, of course, but they’ve been anything but for years.

The state closes this section of Part F with a description of the state’s successful AP4ALL program, and that is probably a good note on which to close what is otherwise a pretty dismal section of the state’s application.

One gets the sense that by the time they got to this point, one of the last sections in the application, they didn’t really care anymore.  They don’t discuss EPS or the innovative schools law in any detail, they make no effort to defend the state’s lack of charter schools, and they use a poorly-crafted rehash of ideas expressed elsewhere in the application to fill up the remaining space.

This is unfortunate, as only two sections of the application remain: the last section of Part F, which is something of an overview of the state’s reform approach, and the so-called “invitational priorities,” which discuss the state’s strategy with regard to STEM education, early learning, and other reform approaches.

10 pages of RTT application left to go and a lot of ground to make up if the state has any chance of winning an RTT grant.