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by Colin Powell
There was little arguing between candidates for House District 36 and Senate District 28 on education issues at a forum held by the CSD School Board October 14 at the Island high school. Present at the forum were Senate candidates Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth), James Schatz (D-Blue Hill), and Lynne Williams (G-Bar Harbor), and House candidates Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) and Jacqueline Spofford (R-Mount Desert).
Asked five questions by school board member Skip Greenlaw, the candidates largely agreed with each other on the issue of making school consolidation voluntary. Schatz put forward his attempts in the House last session to delay or remove penalties for towns not consolidating, and said that his first goal in the Senate would be to eliminate penalties and make consolidation voluntary.
Williams also noted that she collected signatures to put a citizen’s initiative on the last ballot to repeal consolidation. “It’s absurd that Augusta is punishing schools and families in rural Maine with this law,” said Williams, adding that the legislation needs to be reworked to provide incentive for school districts to consolidate.
Langley said he too supported legislation in the House to repeal the law, and credited Schatz with giving a great floor speech for the effort before losing the vote, 72-74. He said consolidation may work in more urban areas but does not work in rural communities, and those communities should not be penalized for doing what they believe is best for their students.
While Kumiega expressed reservations about the success of a repeal effort, he said he has been fighting consolidation for four years and would be happy to continue in the legislature.
Spofford said penalties were a mistake and that incentives need to be provided if consolidation is to work.
Greenlaw asked about the best way to determine if a school is meeting the needs of its students. Langley said that in his experience as a teacher at a technical college, he could tell which students came in motivated to continue their education. He advocated for exit-surveys whenever a student finished or quit post-secondary education to better understand what could be improved in high school that would have helped them or made their experience better.
Schatz said communication with the consuming group is key, and said that was one reason he, as a representative, attended all the town meetings in his district. He said he gets feedback from taxpayers and hears the discussions held around the school budget. Schatz also said that evaluations of the intent of new legislation and its eventual impact on the local level is crucial to evaluating how effective a school is.
Williams argued that community involvement is one of the key factors in a healthy school. “If the school is the center of a community, then we’re doing something right,” she said. She also argued against the use of the SAT as a measure of student aptitude, saying that she was against it from the start.
Spofford said key indicators of the health of a school are graduation and dropout rates. Together, they indicate the care and attitude students have toward school. She also added that the support of a community for funds above and beyond the Essential Programs and Services at school budget time can be evidence of a healthy school.
Kumiega touted the work at Deer Isle-Stonington High School toward standards-based diplomas as one way to measure how students are doing. The new diplomas require students to actually show what they can do and not just asking them what they know.
On charter schools, Spofford said that while she can see their value in more urban areas, rural charter schools do not make a lot of sense to her. “Maine has such a small population, [with charter schools] you’re taking a lot of kids from local community schools and putting them all together, losing diversity in smaller schools,” she said.
Kumiega agreed with Spofford, and questioned why any public school in Maine could not be as good or better than a charter school. “If a charter school somewhere is doing something well, why not try to implement it in our current public schools?” asked Kumeiga rhetorically.
The Senate candidates all supported the idea, but with reservations. Schatz said that while he would support charter school legislation, he would rather take a long hard look at the current state funding formula. He said that minimum-receiver schools, as are most in District 28, are already missing out on a lot of funds. Any charter school legislation should not diminish that funding further. He also said that while he supports the idea, he has reservations about how well it would work in rural Maine.
Williams, too, said she supports charter schools but with many caveats. For one, she does not support for-profit charter schools. She also feels strongly that any legislation to allow such schools would have to require them to accept all students, including special education students. Williams sees the purpose of charter schools as providing grounds for experimenting with new instructional methods.
Langley said he sees charter school legislation as one way for school districts to maintain their independence as Augusta increases control over local school board decisions. If a school votes against joining a consolidated school district, a charter school law could allow communities to “take their school back,” while not losing out on state funds.
Greenlaw also asked candidates about their support for President Obama’s education platform. Kumiega said the platform raises a lot of questions for him. For one, how do you assess school needs based on the needs of a community, he asked, arguing that such an assessment does not exist. He also believes students are already over-assessed as it is. Kumiega also argued that the reform model of turning around failing schools in the Obama education platform simply does not work in rural communities, noting the recent failure by Deer Isle-Stonington High School to qualify for government grant money under one of the reform models.
Spofford argued that Obama turning education funding into a competition has been a disaster. Structures like special education exist in public schools for a reason, she said, and not all kids will be able to jump through the same hoops.
Langley said he has lived through a lot of standards changes in 30 years of education. “Teachers feel like they’re log-rolling while trying to teach,” said Langley, adding that they’re always afraid to fall behind on the latest assessment. To that extent, Langley said he supports at least one part of Obama’s platform, which calls for using state-of-the-art assessments to target student deficiencies sooner and get interventions in place. He also lauded the platform’s efforts to build partnerships between colleges and high schools and said he is currently helping to broker just such a partnership between Vanderbilt University and five high schools in Maine.
Williams said that she does not appreciate top-down approaches to educational reform. Like Spofford, she said she finds it objectionable that the federal government is setting up contests for funding among the states. She said there are many good ideas to reform education “out there,” but they have to come from the local level to be effective.
Schatz, too, said he is suspicious of top-down approaches to reform. He said he is amazed at the energy and enthusiasm at the local level in places like DISHS to improve the quality of education. Schatz said that transformation from the federal level will never work without talented people at the local level, and when you have that you already have the tools to define quality education at the local level.
At the end of the forum, audience members were given a chance to ask questions. Charlie Wiggins of Sedgwick started off the segment asking candidates what they would do encourage active citizenship among students.
Williams said she has always been a strong proponent of activities like mock court and student government, and has served as mentors to such groups at MDI High School. She also said that the lack of citizenship classes, and the fact that most other governance activities are extra-curricular, is disappointing.
Schatz admitted that there is a good deal of apathy and ignorance about citizen governance in students. But he also added that the best way to get them involved is to build opportunities for participation around issues important to them. He said some George Stevens Academy students once did some work to get an article on the town warrant, but nothing ever came of it.
Langley said he had a similar experience in Tremont, though there the student-sponsored bill to bring hands-on activities into the school passed. He said he would continue to support efforts like this and hopes the student warrant for $25,000 is renewed in the coming year.
Kumiega said the CSD school board has had a great experience with two student representatives over the past year. He said he would be glad to advocate for student representatives on other school boards in the district.
Spofford spoke of her personal experience with mock votes in school and the impact of visiting legislators to the school and said she would advocate for getting public servants into schools more often to talk with students about their role in government.
Asked about the position of gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage on teaching creationism in schools, nearly all the candidates said they do not support that position. Langley did, however, say that curriculum decisions are best left to local school boards and he did not have a position on the teaching of creationism.