SKOWHEGAN — Sweeping education legislation proposed by the governor and education commissioner on Wednesday would allow public funding of religious schools, change how teachers are evaluated, provide students with more school choice and expand technical education.

Inside an automotive garage at the Somerset Career & Technical Center, Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen revealed details of four proposed bills that would likely affect every student, teacher and administrator in Maine.

LePage said the proposed legislation was designed to provide the broadest scope of opportunities for students.

“When I say it’s about the student, I’m talking about making sure each student gets the education he or she wants,” he said.

But the proposals were quickly denounced by the state teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association.

“They are stripping away the rights of teachers,” association president Chris Galgay said.

The proposed bills are being written this week.

They would:

• remove statutory language that prohibits public tuition dollars from going to private religious schools;

• require school districts to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems that use multiple measures of effectiveness, including students’ academic achievement and growth;

• establish an open enrollment program that allows students to attend schools beyond their town and district boundaries; and

• require school districts sharing a technical center to develop a common school calendar to make it easier for students to participate in training.

Marylyn Wentworth, an education consultant and a founder and director of The New School in Kennebunk, a private high school, said the education proposals could help steer discussions toward making students’ needs the top priority.

“Not what’s best for budgets. Not what’s best for teachers. Not what’s best for the teachers’ union or administrators but what is best for kids,” she said.

Religious schools funding

The religious schools initiative would allow public tuition money to fund such schools if they meet rigorous academic standards, Bowen said.

He compared the proposal to what is already happening at some private schools, such as Erskine Academy in South China, which educates predominantly public school students and receives public funding.

The current law shouldn’t favor private schools while discriminating against parents who want to send their children to a religious school of comparable educational caliber, Bowen said.

Assistant Democratic Leader Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who serves on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said using local money to pay for private or religious schools “is another example of short-sighted policy that chooses ideology over what’s best for Maine’s people.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, another member of the education committee, called LePage’s proposals a “knock out of the park.”

“Every bill on that agenda is looked at through the prism of putting students first,” he said.

Galgay, however, is concerned that the loss of students and their tuition dollars as they transfer to religious schools would drain the resources of their former public schools.

In addition, “these are tax dollars, and I believe in the separation of church and state,” Galgay said.

In other states, the Supreme Court has upheld the state’s power to send money to private religious schools, Mason said.

“This is not a radical departure from reality,” he said. “This is a great thing.”

New teacher evaluations

Under the legislation for teacher and principal evaluation systems, Maine school districts would be required to adopt new ways of evaluating education staff based in part on students’ academic performance.

The state education department would begin developing guidelines this year, with the goal of establishing the rules within a year. They would likely be fully implemented in 2015-16.

Many different methods would determine whether a teacher is effective, Bowen said. The evaluation systems would examine students’ academic growth, be conducted regularly and provide specific feedback to teachers and principals in order to help them improve.

“Ultimately, if a teacher does not improve, yes, there ought to be a way to remove them,” said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the education department.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, questioned whether the state should be determining the accountability systems, particularly when considering the different needs of rural and urban districts.

“That really is something that probably should be driven locally,” he said.

Bowen, however, said the goal is not a specific state evaluation system but rather a set of broad standards for local districts to apply.

Galgay, of the teachers’ union, fears the legislation would eliminate due process rights for long-time teachers who have been ineffective for two consecutive years by putting them back on probation.

Mary Turbyne, a retired teacher from the Skowhegan area, said any such attempts to change the state’s education system must involve the support of teachers or it will fail.

The bill also requires the State Board of Education to create an alternative teacher certification process for people who have not completed an approved educator preparation program but who are deemed to have the academic expertise to be effective teachers.

In addition, it asks that the education department begin examining education degree programs that prepare people for the teaching profession and track the number of graduates, the number who become certified teachers and the number who remain in teaching after three and five years.

Switching to a new evaluation system is “a very tall order and cannot be achieved overnight,” said Ken Coville, superintendent of Anson-based School Administrative District 74.

More school choice

Another proposed bill establishes a schools of choice open enrollment program that allows students to pick the school they would like to attend, regardless of where they live, as long as the receiving district has available seats.

Schools would choose whether to participate, and they would determine how many students they could accept each year.

Private schools already approved for public funding could also accept open enrollment students.

If the number of students applying to attend a certain school exceeds the number of available slots, the school must hold a lottery, according to the proposal. Bowen said schools would not be able to cherry pick certain students.

Bowen said school districts struggling with declining enrollment would benefit because they could take in more students and therefore more state funding.

If students are leaving a school district for another, it “tells you something about your school,” he said, and “you’ve got a bigger problem than open enrollment.”

Jeremy Lehan, an English teacher at Skowhegan Area High School and president of the local School Administrative District 54 Education Association, said he is worried about the idea of money following students out of their home district.

“It’s idealistic saying all those struggling schools will be able to compete,” he said.

Wentworth, who is on the board of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, said it’s reasonable for people to fear a drain of students. But charter school openings in other states haven’t caused public schools in those states to become pinched financially, she said.

Under LePage’s proposal, parents would be responsible for getting their children to a school in another district, although districts could provide transportation if they chose.

Technical education

LePage said the goal behind legislation concerning career and technical education is to make it easier for students to attend vocational centers.

The bill would require school districts that share a technical center to develop a common school calendar with no more than five dissimilar days in order to promote more hands-on participation.

It would allow vocational students to transfer some credits into the Maine Community College System, and it would ensure that academic credits earned from attending classes at technical centers are recognized by their home high schools.

David Ruff, executive director of the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, based in Portland, applauded the proposed partnership between technical centers and the community college system, saying “It’s time that we all start working together on solutions.”

Ryan Gove, 18, of Mercer, participates in the outdoor resources program at the Somerset Career & Technical Center. Some classes last several hours, he said, and he enjoys exploring topics in depth.

Ivan Beaulieu, 18, of Smithfield, a senior at Skowhegan high school, is in the same program. He was directing traffic before LePage’s announcement on Wednesday and said any way to get more students involved in career-oriented education is good.

“You learn what you want to do before college and have to pay money … just to learn what you want to do in the first place,” he said.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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