Progress being made on healthcare says Michaud


Congressmen Mike Michaud is preparing to leave the halls of power for August recess. Taking a pause is the last thing this Blue Dog wants to do right now. Michaud and his colleagues are elbow deep in health care legislation with an agreeable solution getting closer, according to Michaud.

from The Exception:

“Congress is preparing to adjourn for the August break. I voted against adjournment so that we could stay in session and complete work on a health care reform package. Though it appears Congress will break for the month of August, I believe that the ongoing work on health care reform is positive and demonstrates that some good progress has been made”

Michaud broke ranks with other Blue Dogs last June over restrictions the Blue Dog Coalition wished to place on the size of the public health option and other limitations. In a recent editorial Michaud stated that he would not vote for any health care plan without a public option and is hopeful that small businesses will be treated fairly in the health care legislation.

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The 2009 Beer Summit

What are the big headlines from the Whitehouse today? Healthcare reform? The economy? North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan? Not quite. Everyone seems to be buzzing about Obama and beer.

In a pseudo-issue almost less relevant than the great dog mystery, major news outlets scrambled to discover what beer President Obama would drink at his meeting today with Professor Henry Gates and Police Sergeant James Crowley. Mr. Obama is meeting with the two men in an attempt to quell racial tensions cause by Prof. Gates’ arrest at his Cambridge, MA home and Mr. Obama’s subsequent comments on the affair.

The media covered the impact of the beer choices from every conceivable angle. The implications of who beer manufacturers were tied to, class issues, and prohibition demonstrations are just a small sampling of some topics covered.

In the end Prof. Gates chose Red Stripe, Sergeant Crowley Blue Moon, and President Obama will go with Bud Light. At the risk of sounding elitist I must say Mr. President, that is just nasty.

Steve Bowen on charter schools in Maine

The introduction of charter schools in Maine has been plagued by myths and misconceptions. Maine’s senate voted 20 to 14 against the most recent charter school legislation, LD 1438. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated recently that “states will hurt their chance to compete for millions of federal stimulus dollars if they fail to embrace innovations like charter schools.”

The Maine View spoke recently with Steve Bowen. Bowen is the director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Institute. How charter schools can benefit Mainers, charter funding, and dispelling myths about charter schools were just a few of the subjects discussed.

Let’s begin with your thoughts on the general state of education in Maine.

To be blunt, our schools are not as good as people think. Our students rank well against kids in other states in standardized tests, but a good deal of that has to do with the unique demography of Maine’s students, who are almost exclusively white and English-speaking. We should expect them to do well against the tens of millions of non-English-speaking learners across the nation and the tens of millions of poor and minority students trapped in horrific schools in our biggest cities. When you adjust for our demographics, though, our rankings plunge. Some of our schools are very good, but not nearly as many of them as people suppose.

We need to make our schools much, much better and we need to do it very, very quickly.

Many in Maine’s legislative and education circles supported the past Charter legislation. What is your opinion of the defeated Charter School Bill (LD 1438)? Was LD 1438 perfect or could anything be done to improve it the next time it comes around?

I think the bill as it was originally drafted was excellent. It had been carefully crafted based on national models and feedback from a previous charter school bill which failed passage back in 2006. LD 1438 was watered down during the committee process in the hope that doing so would win it broader support, but that support did not materialize. In general, those who opposed the bill opposed charter public schools in principle, not this particular piece of charter school legislation.

There were a few outside Maine who saw the rejection of the Charter legislation as Mainers standing up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for charter expansion. Do you believe that sentiment to be true?

Certainly the Obama administration’s call for states to lift caps on charter public schools, including Maine’s absolute cap, impacted the debate, but I don’t think legislators voted against charters simply to send some kind of message to Washington. By and large, those that voted against the bill simply oppose charter public schools. If anything, I think the administration’s support for charters helped the bill, especially in the House.

I was enthusiastic about the virtual charter measure of LD 1438. What is your perspective on how virtual charter schools would have aided rural and urban Mainers?

There is no question that Maine is quickly falling behind the rest of the nation in terms of embracing online and virtual schooling. Florida, for instance, has a statewide virtual high school which gives students access to all kinds of courses unavailable in their local schools. Why aren’t we doing this? Online and virtual schooling is the future. The centuries-old model of students leaving home every morning and going to a brick and mortar building to be instructed exclusively by teachers located there is rapidly coming to an end. Our grandchildren will likely never set foot in a “school” as we understand them today.

How ironic it is that Maine, once seen as an innovator in educational technology, has come to resist the innovation of online and virtual schooling, which will utterly transform education as we know it.

Maine is one of the more rural states in the U.S. It has been said that there is not enough population base to support charter schools. Is that accurate?

One of the arguments I advanced in response to this concern was that charter public schools could very well be tools for economic and community development in the very areas of the state that most need it. How are we going to attract young families to rural Washington and Aroostook Counties, by maintaining the status quo? No. What we should be doing is transforming these rural schools into highly innovative charter public schools doing incredibly creative things.

Greenville is contemplating doing exactly this. According to a recent article in the Bangor Daily News, school and community leaders up there are looking for a way to transform the Greenville school into some kind of charter-type school that uses an outdoor leadership approach and integrates the curriculum around environmental stewardship. They’ve found that existing state and federal regulations prohibit them from pursuing this, and so are looking to the charter school model as a way to liberate teacher and administrators.

Unfortunately, legislators in Augusta think they know better than the folks in Greenville, what is in the best interest of Greenville, so the charter approach, at least for now, is off the table. Imagine, though, liberating teachers and school administrators all over the state and letting them explore innovative new approaches to teaching and learning. Such an approach would be huge, especially for rural Maine.

There is concern that charter schools would draw funding from already struggling rural schools. Has that worry been overplayed?

As I noted above, charter public schools would be a boon for rural Maine. If you ran a rural school, and a charter public school, were they allowed in Maine, opened two towns over and started drawing some of your students away, what would you do in response? If I were running the school, I would immediately convert to charter status and work to win those students back with more innovation and new ideas. The fact that the money follows the child is what encourages new approaches.

Some states have enacted chartering legislation that provides existing public schools with the same funding even if some of their students leave and go to charter schools. As you might imagine, that means no pressure on the existing schools to innovate and improve, with the result that the students left behind continue to endure schools that are failing them. It is the pressure to compete that drives innovation.

Plus, it is important to remember that if the struggling rural school is struggling because it is not very good, than putting it out of business is a good thing. We have to stop thinking in terms of what is in the best interest of schools and start thinking in terms of what is in the best interest of students.

The cost of charter schools has also been a source of uneasiness for Mainers. Would charter schools bring a heavier tax burden to towns containing them?

No. In most instances they would save tax dollars. Under the provisions of LD 1438, school districts were to pay charter schools a per-pupil amount equal to what the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model says should be spent per student. The vast majority of districts in Maine, 88% to be exact, are spending well above what the formula says they should, which means that spending the state-calculated per-pupil rate would save the district money.

For instance, if a school district is currently spending $500 per child more than the state’s funding formula says it should, sending each child to a charter school at the state’s rate, as under LD 1438, would save the district $500 per child.

Furthermore, taxpayers do not fund construction or capital costs for charter public schools. Charter public schools have to provide for buildings and so forth on their own, through private donations and the like. The savings to taxpayers on capital costs alone would be huge.

Some say charter schools are unnecessary as they often do not outperform existing public schools. Is this myth true?

There are good and bad charter public schools just as there are good and bad conventional public schools. The difference is that bad charter schools close, whereas bad public schools remain open forever and continue to be fed a steady diet of students who are given no other options. What charter schools have that conventional public schools lack is accountability.

Besides which, most comparisons between charter public schools and conventional public schools don’t take into account that charter schools disproportionally serve low-income students and most do so with fewer resources at their disposal that comparable conventional public schools.

Charter schools have been accused of cherry picking only the best students to boost their performance rates. What would have prevented Maine charters from this?

The charter school law would have prevented this from happening because charter public schools are public schools and cannot use any kind of selective admissions process. They have to take all comers, and if they exceed enrollment capacity, have to use a lottery system to fill enrollments. The law forbids them from “cherry picking” students. They are public schools and can no more turn away students than can conventional public schools.

Charter public schools can specialize in certain instructional approaches, and these approaches may not appeal to all students, but charter public schools are public schools and cannot be exclusionary.

Many believe that charter schools could be controlled by corporations, such as Green Dot or the Gates Foundation, or religious organizations. There is a fear that these organizations would then use charter schools to push their agendas on children. Can Maine charter schools avoid this?

Setting aside for a moment the questionable notion that conventional public schools somehow do not have an agenda that they are pushing on students, what prevents charter schools from doing this is student and family choice. Students cannot be compelled to attend a public charter school – they are schools of choice. Assuming that you have tough transparency and accountability provisions in your charter school law, charter schools that are more interested in ideological ax grinding than in improving educational outcomes will fail and close. Only those schools that effectively meet the educational needs of students will succeed and remain open. You can’t say the same about a single conventional public school in this country.

Opponents of public charter schools and of school choice in general give parents very little credit for knowing whether their children are getting a high quality education or not. Parents should not be allowed to choose, we are repeatedly told, because they don’t know a good school when they see it. The research clearly shows, though, that parents, when given educational choices, do their homework and deliberate very, very carefully about where to send their child. The solution, therefore, is to give them lots of high quality choices, including public charter schools run by non-profits, for-profits, community groups, universities, and so forth. Parents, given a choice, will make the right decision.

Do you believe charter schools to be a better education option than what is already available to Mainers?

Having the option of public charter schools is better than not having the option, but whether the charter schools that are then created are better than the other choices available to students is a decision for students and families to make, not me. All I am saying is that this is a very promising reform approach that is being tried in 40 other states and ought to at least be an option here as well.

Greenville wants to convert its school to charter status in order to launch a highly innovation new approach to teaching and learning. Will it be better for students? I don’t know, but I am fully prepared to allow Greenville, if it so chooses, to at least experiment with it and find out, and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why legislators in Augusta think they shouldn’t have that opportunity.

If you had one point to make to change a charter opponent’s mind what would it be?

I guess I would encourage them to spend some time reading about and thinking about the challenges confronting this generation of school kids. These kids, my own 7- and 10- year-olds included, will be asked to compete for prosperity in ways that no prior generation of Americans has ever been asked to. As the national debt continues to skyrocket, these young people will face enormous fiscal and budgetary challenges here at home at the very time they will be asked to compete for jobs against tens of millions of college graduates from India and China.

To prepare them for this, we are using centuries-old model of schooling run on a school year calendar inherited from a pre-industrial agrarian society. Go back to your high school today, no matter what your age, and tell me how much, if anything, has fundamentally changed in the way that school does its work. Yes, there are computers and technological advances, but in the way that the school fundamentally works, from the factory-era bell schedule to the compartmentalization of knowledge (science in this room for 50 minutes, math in that room to 50 minutes), schools are run today almost exactly as they have more than 50 years.

That isn’t going to do it. We desperately need new approaches and new models for teaching and learning. Unfortunately, rather than liberate our educators to pursue these reforms, we have constructed these massive educational bureaucracies and have burdened them with overregulation and red tape. They can’t innovate even if they wanted to.

Charter schools, though, are a model that frees educators from all of that and allows them to be enterprising and innovative. The data on this is overwhelming, and it is what makes this model so promising that Republicans and Democrats alike (other than here in Maine) are rushing to embrace it.

The status quo is not enough. It is not enough. We need big, we need bold, we need game-changing. Charter schools aren’t the whole solution, but they are a very, very big piece of it.

Dropout fighters gather in Orono

According to recent statistics, one in five Maine students will not complete high school. A diverse group of business people, children’s advocates, and educators are meeting to discuss this issue at the University of Southern Maine. The summit will explore strategies to increase high school completion rates. The ultimate goal is to reach 100% completion, but a goal of 90% by 2016 has been set for now.

Though reducing dropout rates is a must for Maine, we must also address another troubling statistic. As of 2005, only 72.49% of Maine students, that’s public and private, move on to post-secondary school. Post-secondary school includes community colleges, 4 year universities or colleges, vocational or technical schools, and other continuing education programs. Hopefully we will see a summit advocating 100% post-secondary attendance as well.

Dan Skolnik addresses West End News claims

(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)

A few weeks ago, the Portland Public Safety Committee gave Portland Police the OK to use tasers for a trial period. Prior to the agreement, several Maine groups including Peace Action Maine and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, spoke out against the use of tasers by the Portland PD. Councilman Dan Skolnik wrote an Op/Ed in the Portland Press Herald on June 27th attempting to alleviate some concerns over police taser use. One Portlander did not agree with Councilman Skolnik’s views.

Marge Niblock, police reporter for the West End News, wrote an rebuttal to Councilman Skolnik’s editorial in the Portland Press Herald and the West End News. Niblock questioned Councilman Skolnik’s facts on tasers, specifically the banning of tasers in Baltimore, Chicago, and Philidelphia and Councilman Skolnik’s citing of a taser manufacturer’s website as a resource for how “police technology is regulated at the municipal level all over the country.” Niblock accused Councilman Skolnik and the Portland Press Herald of “promulgating misinformation

Niblock also reported that Councilman Skolnik told her “My statement is not false. It’s not sufficiently accurate.” in response to his inaccuracies in the PPH editorial. “(Skolnik’s
clarification brings to mind President Bill Clinton’s famous disclaimer: “I did not have sex with that woman.”)” Niblock wrote in reply.

The West End News reported last week that Councilman Skolnik “called the writer of the story at her home after the story appeared, screaming at her and calling her a liar. He also
called the newspaper in a rage, claiming that his words had been distorted.” Niblock also said she had taken a polygraph test confirming her side of the story.

We have the West End News’ side of the story, but what about Councilman Skolnik. Councilman Skolnik has provided a statement clarifying his side of the incident. The statement appears below in full.

When Marge Niblock called me and brought the error to my attention I went back to the source material and looked again. I told her, “You’re right I made a mistake. I was looking at the wrong information in the source material. Of course, the statement isn’t false, because tasers ARE prohibited for civilians. But, yes, it’s not sufficiently accurate because that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about police use.”

Niblock distorted that statement into her headline, “My statement wasn’t false, it wasn’t sufficiently accurate.” She purposefully and knowingly made it look like I TRIED to mislead people with the misstatement, AND that I didn’t acknowledge the error when pointed out in that phone call. Both implications are as false as can be, and Niblock knows that.

This little bit of invention was apparently done so Niblock could make a witticism about Bill Clinton and me, rather than advance the public discourse on taser use by the Portland Police Dept. But Clinton’s statement was videotaped.

Are we to be impressed that Niblock claims to have passed a polygraph test? They are unreliable, and in any case it shows she cannot produce any RECORD that I said what she printed. That’s because her gross distortion is either an irresponsible or an incompetent fiction.

Ed King is also inflamed over this because I called Niblock on the carpet, although he is unable to come up with a cogent reason why. His ideas about the role of the press in local politics are unique among the Portland press corps. Ed’s notions of honesty and fairness evidently do not match mine

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Downeast Pride Alliance backs Steve Rowe

(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)

Gubernatorial candidate Steven Rowe received an endorsement today from the Downeast Pride Alliance. The Downeast Pride Alliance strives to promote LGBT businesses and create a network of LGBT professionals.

The Downeast Pride Alliance had this to say on their endorsement of Steven Rowe:

“I truly believe that no one will work harder for our interest than Steve! As the former Attorney General, Steve has a long history of being a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community. He whole-heartedly supports marriage equality & will work to defeat any repeal efforts. He was critical for us in winning gay adoption and is also a huge supporter of our small business community. At our first event, Steve was with us supporting DEPA a year ago at the Portland Harbor Hotel”.

With this endorsement we can rule out another potential gubernatorial candidate. Sen Dennis Damon, sponsor of LD 1020 (the same-sex marriage bill) would have almost certainly received DEPA’s backing had he chosen to run. DEPA’s endorsement of Rowe will likely strengthen support from his base, giving Rowe an edge in the Democratic primary. Rowe’s gains across all voters will be less, though social conservatives were not a likely group of supporters for Rowe.

Moving past school consolidation UPDATED

(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)

Gov. Baldacci’s school consolidation plan could possibly go down as one of his most controversial. School consolidation may have been able to be sold easily to the public with a little education and openness from Augusta. Baldacci’s PR fumble stalled chances of an easy passage.

Many were downright offended by what they saw as Big Government trying to tell them how they should run their schools. The bill, bristling with penalties for non-compliance, rather than helpful incentives, helped it grind to a halt in some communities. Rural communities are presumed to be the biggest resistors, but Yarmouth, Falmouth, and Cape Elizabeth are holdouts as well, though some have received exceptions.

Some towns balk the consolidation because of nothing more than petty turf wars. A state representative said recently that parents of Town A didn’t want to consolidated and have their kids go to school with children from Town B. Parents from Town B expressed similar sentiments. You’d think someone suggested the Jets and the Sharks share the same classroom. One can understand the sentiment that citizens felt this consolidation proposal pushed on them. One can understand anger that districts rush through consolidation efforts. It takes time to sort out tax burned issues and what schools to close, etc. What is not understandable is how adults can be so petty and act like their town is the John D. Rockefeller to their neighbor’s Clark W. Griswold. If that is your only hangup, move on.

Finding the right formula to save towns money, the whole purpose of consolidation, is still a valid concern. 72 districts or towns operate at $1 million or more over EPS standards. The reduction of our bloated district system is a noble goal. However, if it isn’t being reduced into something more efficient then what’s the point. Still, every day legislators spend on school consolidation is a day they can’t focus on another aspect of our children’s education.

What are some of the topics the legislature could not discuss:

  • Establishing statewide curriculum standards
  • Moving toward 21st century standards
  • Exploring graduation requirements
  • Improving college attendance rates
  • Charter school implementation
  • Integrating schools with the university and community college systems

Mainers have been dealing with consolidation for close to 15 years, 50 years if you count the Sinclair Act. School district consolidation can be worked to save communities money on overhead in the long run, and put that money back into the classroom. We could all argue till the Sun burns out how to best do that. What we adults are forgetting here is the whole point of education; the kids. While we are bickering back and forth they are the ones who are losing out. No matter the outcome of the November’s referendum on school consolidation it is time to move on.

(Cross-posted at the Augusta Insider)

UPDATE(9/30/09):  I wrote this piece quite a few months ago.  A lot has changed since then.  There was one looming issue I had yet to consider; what will happen if consolidation is repealed?  I’d like to think we could just move on no matter what happens November 3rd.  After reading a recent article in Matthew Stone’s The Report Card it looks it will not be that easy.

Maine can’t afford to roll back the law, the Web site says. “School district consolidation can save taxpayers $36 million every year and hundreds of millions of dollars in the future. Repealing the measure will wipe out those savings and will make local property taxes will (sic) go up much, much faster.”

It’ll be tough to convince voters in towns like Monmouth and Pownal that repealing consolidation will have an adverse effect on their property tax bills. Those two towns experienced significant property tax swings while budgeting for this school year, the first one they were members of consolidated school districts. Voters in both towns have said they want out of their consolidated districts. Problem is, there’s no provision in the consolidation law that would allow them to withdraw.

The budget for education is so tight cutting learning days for students has been placed on the table.  Taxes are such an important issue in Maine there are two ballot questions relating to them.  If you cast a yes on question 3 you will possibly ad $36 million to an already overloaded education budget.  Also, no one has explained what will happen if school consolidation is repealed.  What will districts that have consolidated do?  Many have cut jobs and positions and generally reworked operations already.  Wont be easy, if not impossible, to back to the way things were.  If you cast a no on question 3 you will possibly ad to already tough property taxes in some towns.  Pownal saw a 35% increase in education costs when it joined RSU 5.  Towns like Pownal are seeing a shift in costs, from state to localCatch 22. Damned if you do damned if you don’t.  Between a rock and a hard place.  Pick your adage.  That makes it all the more important you take the time to think on your choice.  Either way it wont be as easy to just move on as I once thought.