Live Blogging the Education Committee’s June meeting

Live Blogging the Education Committee’s June meeting

June 7, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 2 Comments

4:00 pm: Ending on time, and a good meeting overall – good to see the committee throwing its weight around a little. There wasn’t nearly enough of this last legislative session, let’s hope for more in the future.

3:45 pm: So how many school districts are there in Maine, Rep. Nelson asks.  The answer is not that easy, as it turns out.  The reorg team before the committee right now claims there are 174, but the state’s Race to the Top application says there are 215.


The answer seem to be that the state is counting AOS’s as individual districts for reorganization purposes, but since the AOS’s are basically unions of independent districts, those individual districts within the AOS’s are counted as individual districts for the purposes of the Race to the Top, which uses a different definition of “school district”. According to the state’s reorganization data, for instance, there are nine AOS’s in place now, which are comprised of 43 different individual school units. The truth, therefore, is that despite millions spent on consolidation, we have far fewer “reorganized” school districts than the committee and the public are being led to believe.

3:40 pm: Great question from Rep. Casavant: Have we gained anything from this?  He didn’t get much of a response, but this is a critical question. Consolidation has cost millions, but produced little in real savings, at least that anyone can find. This could have been predicted, of course, and was.  Rep. Casavant deserves a better answer to his question.

3:33 pm: Some buttering up of the committee going on here – they are being told that the legislative changes made earlier this year – which weakened the original law still further – have led to a lot of reorganization activity.

Well, of course. Through a number of legislative changes, the original reorganization law has been watered down to the point where districts can simply create glorified school unions and still be characterized as having “reorganized.”  These “alternative organizational structures” work essentially like the old school union model – individual districts share administrative services but retain local boards and local governance.  We could have done this years ago, of course, but were told repeatedly by the Department that such an approach would not generate sufficient savings.

Funny how things change…

3:15 pm: Last up on the agenda – a report on how the state’s district reorganization effort is going. “The great promise” of consolidation, the acting commissioner says, “is still ahead of us.” Hmmm…

3:00 pm: Attention seems to be wandering in here, mine included, but the committee appears content that the CDS restructuring, which has been ongoing in an attempt to control costs and improve services,  is moving forward to their satisfaction…

2:43 pm: The DHHS aristocracy decided it had had enough and excused itself, so the committee is now on to looking at the restructuring of CDS.

2:30 pm: Still dealing with DHHS issues, particularly with how one branch of government – the schools – will deal with another branch of government – DHHS.  DHHS, amazingly, given their history, seems to be getting more impatient with the committee’s doubts about the Department’s ability to effectively work with the schools given upcoming changes to the MaineCare billing system.  They seem offended, frankly, that anyone would assume that things won’t go exactly according to plan.  DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey even threw in a little dig at the schools, stating that, unlike them, DHHS works “12 months a year” making sure things go right.

Is there any other department in state government that is more sure of itself and at the same time  more incompetently run? I don’t know of one.

1:50 pm: Only a half-hour into the DHHS briefing, but seems like it has been twice as long.  At issue here is who pays if a MaineCare-enrolled child who gets physical therapy or other medical services at school but then gets additional services through a private provider. Essentially, the MaineCare program will pay both the school and the private provider IF the family can demonstrate that services are needed from both providers.  Simply put, the state is, as the state always does, attempting to ration care.  That is what happens when government provides health care. The committee, though, seems to have had little interaction with DHHS in the past and seems totally befuddled by how DHHS does its work.

Who isn’t?

1:15 pm: After a quick break for lunch, the committee is back to work and first up on the afternoon agenda is, strangely enough, a report from officials from the Department of Health and Human Services on rule changes related to MaineCare…

12:25 pm: Kudos to Sen. Weston for uncovering a change in the Department’s interpretation of eligibility standards for the state’s Aspirations Program, which will have the effect of forbidding students at private schools or home schooled students from taking part in the program at state expense. The Department has evidently started to more strictly enforce the definition of “subsidizable students,” with the result that home schooled students and students at Maine’s private schools can no longer use the program. Sen. Weston expressed concern about this change, which evidently took place without any legislative involvement, and promised that she would encourage a legislative solution to reverse the change in eligibility policy that the Department implemented. Sen. Weston is termed out after this Session and that is a huge blow to the legislature and the committee. She has been outstanding here this term.

12:15 pm: A good question from Rep. Finch – is what Maine put in its RTT application “bold reform” or “watered-down solutions.” Monthey gamely tries to defend the plan, but Faherty says it doesn’t “meet that boldness test” compared to other states, because, she says, Maine is just so different from the other states that the “boldness” definition does not apply here.  We have local control, she says, so we can’t or won’t implement reforms of the kind found elsewhere, such as aggressive efforts to turn around failing schools or working on the distribution of  effective teachers. It is revealing that Faherty characterized the drafting of the RTT application as an “interesting exercise.” Not a lot of commitment there, it seems, and seemingly not a lot of confidence that Maine will prevail in the Race to the Top competition. Disappointing.

12:02 pm: Discussion now turning to the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which would provide funding for the development of pay-for-performance programs in Maine’s school districts.  Monthey claims that 3 districts have expressed some interest working for TIF funding. Will Maine actually begin moving forward on Pay for Performance?

11:55 am: Interesting question from Rep. Wagner: Why didn’t more districts sign on to the RTT application? Faherty seems to think that the burden of doing the work outlined in the RTT application was more than many districts wanted to deal with at this point.  My guess is that it has more to do with widespread skepticism that the state should, or even can, do the things it proposes to do under the RTT plan. The state, and the Department in particular, doesn’t exactly have a great track record at implementing reform. (See Local Assessment System.)

11:35 am: Race to the Top-related discussion seems to be focusing on the state’s adoption of common standards and common assessments. Those common assessments are being developed by the SMARTER Balanced Assessments consortium (which is being led by former commissioner Susan Gendron), and will ultimately take the place of the NECAP and the state’s SAT-based high school assessment.

It seems to have occurred to the committee for the first time that with adoption of common standards and common assessments, what it is that Maine’s students are taught and how it is that they are to be tested will be determined by someone other than the committee. Rep. Finch, for instance, has directly asked the Department’s Wanda Monthey whether the legislature will have any authority over these things after they have been adopted. The answer is no, of course, though Monthey is assuring the committee that they will “be involved.”

Don’t count on it.  With its recent vote to adopt common standards, the committee, and the legislature, has essentially given up its authority to establish learning standards itself.

11:10 am: After a break, the Committee is back to work and discussing the state’s Race to the Top application, which was released last week.  I don’t know what has gotten into the committee this morning, but again they are putting the Department on the defensive, with the committee co-chair, Rep. Sutherland, expressing disappointment that there were some typos and editing errors in the final application.

10:44 am: What started off as a relatively pedestrian legislative review of a troubled state program has evolved into a fascinating debate about how funding for the state’s education programs should be allocated. On one side is Sen. Alfond and Sen. Weston, who are arguing for a move toward a performance-based funding approach, and on the other side is the Department, which is arguing, as far as I can understand it, that there is no way to accurately assess who should get the money and who should not based on outcomes. The Department has piles of data on the individual programs this federal grant funds, it told the committee earlier, but seems to be resisting using that data to make program funding decisions. They appear to prefer, as Sen. Alfond characterized it, to take the “easy” route of simply handing out the money without regard to outcomes.

How rare is it that a state agency openly defends ignoring outcome and performance data when it comes to funding its programs? It happens all the time, but how often do they actually come out and say it? Amazing.

Sen. Alfond’s passion for rewarding outcomes is a welcome development, by the way. He has been great on this issue all morning.  One wonders, though, if his pay-for-performance philosophy will extend to areas such as K-12 funding and teacher pay.  Should failing schools continue to get funding while successful school see budget cuts?  Should ineffective teachers retain their jobs while more effective teachers, who may not have seniority, are laid off? If a private school is more effective than a nearby public school, should it get public funding instead? I will be interested to see in what areas he feels outcomes and performance should be taken into consideration and in what areas the “easy” way – ignoring outcomes or lack thereof – should be used instead.

10:12 am: Wow. Sen Alfond is crushing the Department on why they would fund new and under-performing programs in some schools while cutting programs that work in other schools. He’s earned his pay for the day and we’ve only been here an hour.

10:07 am: Tempers beginning to build in here as the committee chair, Sen. Alfond, goes back and forth with the Department about how the program is administered, specifically with regard to why certain cities and towns are funded the way they are, given the quality data the committee has. The program’s funding process  “is about equity. It is not about quality,” the Department claims in response.  Amazing.  When you think about it, that phrase could be applied to most of what Augusta does.  Programs are funded because of where they are and who represents them in the legislature, not whether the program actually works.

9:40 am: Committee co-chair Sutherland is “appalled,” she says, about the lack of financial oversight of the Department’s federal grant programs, and her sentiment seems to be widely shared among the committee.  The Department’s defense for what they are characterizing as an “accounting error/software issue,” seems to be that one accounting program the state uses doesn’t talk to another accounting program. Funds are thought to be there that are not there, thus the Department over-committed the federal funding it thought it had.

There is a lesson here. If you want to know what an increased federal role in education looks like, this is it – piles of federal money to fund countless federal programs which are managed and accounted for by different people in different departments and agencies which all use different accounting programs. This is what the future of education funding looks like. Much the same can be found today at the Department of Health and Human Services.

9:17 am: The legislature’s education committee is meeting today and the agenda, which does not seem to exist online anywhere, is a packed one.  Issues on the docket today include the state’s Race to the Top application, the blunder at DOE that resulted in an “over-commitment” of federal funds for the “21st Century Community Learning program”, a look at the MaineCare and Child developmental Services, and a review of district consolidation.

Mere minutes have gone by so far, and Acting Commissioner Faherty is already stumbling a bit in response to questions to why the Department bungled how much money it had coming in from the Feds to fund after-school and summer programs for low income students. Faherty’s style is very different from former Commissioner Gendron’s, and it shows.  Where Gendron would have appeared before the committee with a full report on the funding mess, Faherty only responded once questions were put to her on the issue, and with one-sentence, and sometimes one-word answers. The committee doesn’t seem at all interested in solutions at this point, at least not until they get some answers about what went wrong, answers which don’t  seem to be coming from the Department.