AUGUSTA — In a last-minute addition to his State of the State address, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday pitched a new idea that would cost Maine schools at least $700,000 a year.
LePage, outlining a proposal that was not in his prepared remarks, said he will submit legislation requiring local schools to pay for the remedial courses their graduates take in college.
Remedial courses are aimed helping students who lack basic reading, writing and mathematical skills for introductory college courses. They cost the same as college-level courses but don’t count toward degree requirements.
Taking remedial courses forces students, in order to graduate, to borrow greater amounts of money after student aid runs out. Students who take them are less likely to graduate, according to a recent report from the advocacy group Complete College America.
LePage said transferring the cost to school districts will create accountability for high schools that don’t prepare students adequately.
“They went through public school; the job wasn’t done,” LePage said in his address Tuesday. “Now the parents, who are only making 80 percent of the national average in income, have to pay tuition to take it a second time.”
After outlining his idea, LePage told legislators, “We’ll see how much courage you have.”
A law such as the one LePage has proposed is unprecedented, though the idea is not. The governor has talked about the idea before, and officials in other states have as well, according to Brenda Bautsch, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C.
However, “it has just been rhetoric at this point,” Bautsch said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday the legislation still is being written, and several details were not available.
It’s not clear whether the proposal would apply only to students who enroll in college immediately after high school, or whether local schools also would be responsible for people who graduated years earlier. Also unclear is whether the legislation would apply to all colleges and universities — public or private, in Maine or out of state — though Bennett said equity is a goal.
States have paid more attention to the issue of remediation in recent years, Bautsch said. The economy has shifted more toward jobs that require post-secondary education, but state and family budgets are tights and student loan debt is squeezing both people who graduated and those who didn’t.
School district representatives agreed it’s a problem when high school graduates aren’t ready for college or the workforce, but they said schools shouldn’t be held entirely responsible.
“It’s a two-way street,” said Gary Smith, superintendent of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18. “I think education is a participation sport, and it requires both parties to be actively engaged. And if one or the other isn’t following through, it won’t always be the school system that failed.”
In central Maine, graduates of Augusta’s Cony High School had the highest remediation costs: at least $9,582. Gardiner Area High School and Mt. Blue High School in Farmington both topped $8,000.
Maine School Management Association Executive Director Cornelia Brown, who recently stepped down as superintendent of Augusta schools, said the idea seems to be less about accountability than punishing schools.
“I think that is not good public policy,” she said. “I think that kids come to school in all sorts of readiness stages, and I think that they probably start at the university in varying states of readiness.”
Maine college freshmen actually need significantly fewer remedial classes than their peers in other states, especially at four-year colleges.
In the University of Maine system, 12 percent of freshmen enrolled in remedial courses last fall, compared to a range of 24 percent to 39 percent elsewhere in New England, according to U.S. Education Department data.
The preparedness gap is much larger, however, in the Maine Community College System, where 50 percent of new high school graduates took at least one remedial class last semester. That’s the number LePage cited in his speech on Tuesday.
Those 1,062 community college students took 1,425 remedial courses, and system spokeswoman Helen Pelletier said it cost them an estimated $450,000.
University of Maine System spokeswoman Peggy Markson said the system still is calculating the cost to the 324 students who took 356 remedial courses at the seven universities in the fall.
Based on the cost of credit hours at each university, the total tuition was about $250,000.
Remedial courses at Maine’s public universities and community colleges are typically worth three credit hours apiece. Students also must pay for fees, materials and transportation.
At $86 per credit hour in the community college system, a remedial course costs $258 in tuition. For the universities, the cost ranges from $651 at the University of Maine at Augusta to $837 at the University of Maine in Orono, though only two freshmen were enrolled in remedial courses at the latter institution last semester.
In order to calculate a bare minimum cost, estimates made here apply UMA’s tuition figure to all remedial courses within the University of Maine System because UMA’s is the lowest.
To protect student privacy, the community colleges and universities did not report precise figures in cases where five or fewer students from a school were enrolled in remedial courses.
‘Every dollar counts’
Brown, of the Maine School Management Association, said all public schools have to take everyone and thus deal with the effects of outside factors such as poverty, mental illness or domestic violence.
High schools such as Cony in Augusta have special challenges, Brown said. Students enter Cony from middle schools in several surrounding districts, and Augusta has a somewhat transient population, so students move in and out during the year.
Brown said educators work as hard as they can, but they can’t necessarily get everyone to the same place, especially with the added challenges of mandates and tight budgets.
“Schools need the resources to make every student successful,” she said. “You can’t be eroding those resources.”
Donna Wolfrom, superintendent of Readfield-based RSU 38, said her district already is straining to pay for intervention services and new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards. Those two initiatives should improve student’s readiness for college, she said.
At Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, LePage’s proposal would have imposed a cost of at least $2,477 this year.
“We’re working on our budget now, and every dollar counts for us,” Wolfrom said. “Even $2,500 we would have to think about. That would take away from a service or a program that we would offer to our students that are enrolled in our district.”
Bennett acknowledged the additional cost for school districts but said it’s important to hold schools accountable for providing the best education possible. She said LePage’s challenge to the Maine Education Association to help pay for teacher development perhaps could be expanded to include the cost of the remedial courses.
Mandated to do so by a law passed last year, the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System submitted their first annual remediation reports to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee last month, showing how many students are taking remedial courses and which high schools they attended.
Bautsch said California and Florida have adopted a promising approach. Students take a state examination in 10th or 11th grade, and those who score too low spend 12th grade brushing up on skills that would be covered in remedial courses. Community colleges and high schools work together to develop the courses for low-scoring high school students.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645