AUGUSTA — A bill that would create one more layer of appeal on decisions about whether students can be placed in schools outside their districts got final passage unanimously Tuesday in the Senate.
Current law allows parents to petition their local superintendent if they want to enroll their child in a school across district lines. If the superintendent denies the request, the parent can appeal directly to the state’s education commissioner, who has the final say.
Initially the bill created a sharp divide between the Department of Education and Democratic lawmakers, but it was amended in a compromise deal that found 34–0 support in the Senate. It was passed Thursday without a roll-call vote in the House.
L.D. 530, sponsored by Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, originally sought to eliminate the line in state law that renders the education commissioner’s decisions “final and binding.”
Replacing that would be language that reads, “The commissioner may modify the transfer decision only upon a written finding that the student may not have the opportunity to receive the benefits of a free public education without the transfer.” The bill as initially drafted drew sharp opposition from Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who has used his authority to overturn dozens of local decisions about whether students should be allowed to transfer out of their district.
At a March hearing before the Education Committee, Bowen called the original bill “the most significant threat to existing school choice options I have seen in 10 years of involvement in legislative affairs.”
“This is a profoundly flawed bill that essentially eliminates a long-standing school choice option that has been available to all families, but most especially those families who can afford no other option when it comes to finding an educational setting that best meets their child’s needs,” he added.
As a compromise, the Education Committee amended Nelson’s bill to allow the education commissioner to weigh in on local decisions when petitioned, but it also allows for the commissioner’s decision to be reviewed by the State Board of Education, if either party wishes.
The amended bill passed in the House on Thursday without debate and passed in the Senate on Monday. It now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature or veto.
Cornelia Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her organization has been concerned about the pattern established under Bowen of the state overturning local superintendents’ decisions about student placement. The practice creates uncertainty for districts when it comes to enrollment numbers, which in turn affects budgets, and it usurps local control, she said.
Brown said historically, only a small percentage of these superintendent agreements were appealed to the commissioner; and when that did happen, the commissioner often sided with the local district. During this school year, however, Bowen has overturned about 95 percent of local decisions.
Since Bowen took over in early 2011, department data show, superintendent transfers have dropped off and the commissioner himself has taken a large amount of decisions into his own hands, particularly this school year.
In this school year and last, superintendents approved more than 3,000 transfers, compared with more than 5,400 in the two years prior. And in the last two school years, Bowen has fielded 135 appeal requests, denying only 17 of them. He rejected only three out of 103 this school year.
“We believe that is reflective of the commissioner’s beliefs on school choice,” Brown said. “But last session, a school choice bill failed in a Republican-led Legislature and a similar bill failed this year.”
Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the department, said in an email Bowen’s decisions reflect “what is in the best interest of students, whether it’s exposing the student to different academic programming, moving them into a healthier school environment or ensuring access to (after-school) programming and care so they don’t come home to an empty house.”
Brown said the amended version of L.D. 530 creates a good compromise because it ensures that the final decision rests not with one person but a board. The board’s decision now would be consided “final and binding” under this bill.
The State Board of Education consists of nine members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.