AUGUSTA — A LePage administration plan for making schools accountable for their performance is raising concerns for teachers and some lawmakers.

But a Department of Education budget document that refers to legislation that would authorize the state to “take over failing schools” is inaccurate, the administration says.

The proposed Office of School Accountability, funded by a $3 million appropriation, is in Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget for the Department of Education.

The proposal surfaced on Tuesday, when Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen gave lawmakers a document that detailed part of the proposed education budget.

The document included a request for $3 million for “funding to put an Office of School Accountability into place to parallel the legislation we’ll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools.”

Bowen told Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, that the department would provide additional details later.

The related legislation was not introduced Wednesday. Education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the language in the document distributed by Bowen was in error.

“There are a lot of ideas and a lot of language that get floated,” Connerty-Marin said. “I’m not sure how that got in there, but (taking over) struggling schools is not the plan.”

The actual plan, he said, is to establish a division in the education department to help struggling schools by providing state-level guidance and coaching to administrators.

He said the initiative would be similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program. The state uses the program now to identify low-performing schools and then provides assistance.

While the wording of the initiative caused concern, some members of the Education Committee accepted the administration’s explanation.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said the proposal seems “benign and commendable” but questions remain about how the education department would define and identify struggling schools.

“I’m curious about what sort of discretion (the department) has,” said Hubbell. “All I’ve heard is that they have discretion.”

Hubbell said the mention of taking over failing schools is a sensitive topic.

Connerty-Marin said the department hasn’t established the criteria yet for defining struggling schools.

LePage has said he intends to create a system for evaluating school performance and assigning each school a letter grade, from A to F.

That proposal, coupled with the language in the budget document, raised concerns Wednesday for the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union.

“When we start using a grading system and we start using words like ‘taking over public schools’ or closing down challenged schools, that raises an obvious red flag for us,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, the union’s president.

Kilby-Chesley said other states have deemed schools ineffective, then taken them over and fired administrators, staff members and teachers.

That happened at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in 2010. The school was deemed chronically underperforming by the state’s education commissioner. Reform efforts came to a head when the school superintendent embraced a federal incentive that called for firing 93 staff members.

The action, endorsed by the Obama administration, triggered protests by teachers. Later, an agreement between the union representatives and the school district led to rehiring the fired staff in exchange for additional teacher evaluations and other performance measures.

The situation was considered a test case for new education reform efforts that states are considering to gain federal dollars.

The LePage administration has embraced some of those reforms, including school accountability measures.

Kilby-Chesley said Wednesday that there is concern that the school accountability effort will dovetail with the grading proposal and lead the state to take over schools and fire employees. The MEA hasn’t yet taken a stance on the report card proposal.

“We don’t know what the criteria is, we don’t know if there’s a rubric or some sort of chance to improve,” she said. “All we’ve heard is that there’s a report card.

“Obviously, it causes us some consternation when we don’t know what our schools are going to be judged on,” she said.

Connerty-Marin said the planned accountability office wouldn’t “take over” struggling public schools. Instead, it would use state funds to assist schools that don’t qualify for federal assistance under Title I, the program that puts money into economically disadvantaged school districts.

Connerty-Marin said the initiative wasn’t originally intended to dovetail with the administration’s grading proposal, which was drafted before the accountability office idea came to fruition. However, he said, the two proposals could ultimately support each other.

Kilby-Chesley said teachers are wary of the potential stigma associated with a grading system.

However, she said, teachers could support a plan that puts more state dollars into public education.

“If a school is struggling and it doesn’t qualify for Title I funds, of course we would like to see more money go to that school,” she said. “That’s what we hope for every school.”

Democratic lawmakers have criticized LePage’s $6.3 billion state budget proposal for the next two years for flat-funding education while diverting money to other initiatives.

Kilby-Chesley said Wednesday that the governor’s plan to provide more than $815 million in state aid to public schools in the year beginning July 1 is $109 million less than the amount allocated in 2008.

She said the budget is shortchanging public schools, especially when coupled with LePage’s plan to shift 50 percent of teachers’ retirement costs onto school districts.

“Put a few more dollars into the education budget,” she said. “That would be a nice change, to see the budget improve and more money going to our schools.”

The LePage administration counters that it has increased education funding while diverting money into efforts to reform the system.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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