Should Maine Cut School Days to Cut Costs?

Maine is in a budget crunch. That isn’t news to anyone, including educators. Education takes the biggest slice of the pie (40% of the state budget), so it is sure to face cuts.  That isn’t news either.  With a $66 million budget gap on their minds, lawmakers gathered yesterday to discuss what cuts could be made to make ends meet.  “In all likelihood, we need to be prepared to bear a portion of the revenue shortfall,” said Education Commissioner Sue Gendron.  “I was clear with the superintendents — I don’t know how much that is, and that I’ve not been given direction as to what the target is.” One suggestion to cut costs has been school shutdown days.  Continue reading

Maine 2010 Gubernatorial Primary Poll

Primaries aren’t until June, but you can show support for your nomination for Governor at here The Maine View.  Just click the Maine 2010 Primaries tab at the top of the page and place your vote.  This poll will continue until the primaries have concluded.  You can also rate candidates websites here.

Mills’ campaign on social networking(UPDATE)

Young politicos tout the influence of new media in elections and politics in general. From the Augusta Insider’s Gubernatorial Twitter Primary to Pine Tree Politics’ piece on the “new media war” to my own critiques of candidates’ websites, those of us in the net generation are excited to see how all these new tools will impact the game. The 2010 gubernatorial elections will be the first to feature YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter prominently. While many of us hope to see some bold things from politicians on social networking, it remains to be seen if they can truly win an election. Continue reading

Libby Mitchell will challenge other Dems for Blaine House

Senate President Libby Mitchell filed yesterday to run for Governor. The South Carolina born, Vassalboro senator will join 5 other Democrats and 15 contenders overall. Senator Mitchell has released a statement on her run, which has been provided in full below. Continue reading

Is economic growth in Maine a catch-22?

You don’t have to look hard to find indicators Maine’s economy isn’t the best. The economy is not likely to improve before our next governor takes office either. Jobs, jobs, jobs is bound to the mantra for many candidates. Pine Tree Politics has examined Maine’s current economy. Comparing Maine to Virginia, PTP talks about how Maine’s next governor can make the state more business friendly. Continue reading

Running for governor isn’t as easy as it looks

The Augusta Insider spoke the other day on the challenge for independent candidates in Maine. As the Augusta Insider points out, even though Maine is known as independent friendly, it takes a certain mix of qualities for an independent candidate to win in Maine. The Augusta Insider cited fundraising ability, name recognition, being part of a major party in the past, and major party voter satisfaction with their own parties as ingredients to seeing an independent in the Blaine House. Continue reading

The Bolt to the Blaine House ’10 – Peter Mills (R)

(Cross-Posted @ Augusta Insider)

State Senator Peter Mills has formally announced his run for governor. The speculators can move on to other possible hopefuls, as there are many.

Pine Tree Politics has released a statement from Senator Mills on his run:

I am running for Governor with a plan to fix state government and rebuild Maine’s economy. Throughout my 15 years of service in the state legislature I’ve sounded the fiscal alarm that we are now hearing loud and clear. Our state spends more than it can afford and gets poor value for that dollar. The recession has made this frighteningly obvious. Now more than ever we need an accountable government, one that measures the results of the services it delivers.

Mills goes on to outline what he views as Maine’s problems and his solutions. What Mills outlines in his speech can also be viewed in his “plan” featured on his new website.

There are a few things that set Peter Mills apart from the other Republican gubernatorial candidates. Perhaps the most obvious is Mills’ legislative experience. While the three other GOP candidates have business backgrounds, Mills has been in the Maine Legislature since 1994. Mills is also the only candidate to have run for governor before: He lost to fellow State Senator Chandler Woodcock in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary by only 3.4%. The lessons learned from Mills’ extensive campaign experience and his work in the legislature will undoubtedly shape his run. “Things have deteriorated in the last four years,” Mills said in an interview. “Most of the things that I pointed to [in 2006] have gotten worse, and part of that is the economy and part of that is the state.”

Since Senator Mills has been in the legislature, we have the advantage of the early use of Project Vote Smart (for other candidates, we’ll just have to wait until they fill out the Vote Smart survey). Using Vote Smart we can look beyond the speeches and soundbites to interest group ratings and legislative votes grouped by category. Mills’ social ratings on Vote Smart vary. Planned Parenthood has given Mills consistently high rantings. The NRA has also consistently given Mills an “A”. The Maine Education Association, Maine People’s Alliance, and League of Conservation Voters’ ratings have varied over Mills’ legislative career. On the economic side of things Maine AFL-CIO’s ratings went from low to high over Mills’ legislative career, while Mills’ ratings from business organizations such as the Maine Economic Research Institute and the National Federation for Independent Business have become more positive.

Senator Mills’ Vote Smart ratings would place him center or center left socially and to the right fiscally. As Pine Tree Politics has noted, recent votes and actions by Senator Mills may point to another conclusion. Mills’ support for recent tax reform legislation and healthcare reform point to a shift to the left. However, when his whole voting record is viewed, the vote for tax reform seems more like an outlier on the fiscal conservative test. Since 2006 Mills has voted right on many issues. Mills voted against the 2006 minimum wage increase and teacher minimum wage increase . Mills voted against the recent alcohol and soda tax. If Mills can keep focus off his vote for the LD 1088 tax reforms, or put a positive spin on it, his recent record should speak for itself. Mills should be able to convince voters that he is still the same fiscal conservative he once was.

Mills also opposed expansion of Dirigo Health in 2006 and earlier this year. Indeed, Mills has consistently opposed Dirigo, which makes his appearance at the healthcare reform rally all the more interesting. On education, Senator Mills voted against the citizen-initiated repeal of school consolidation and for charter schools.

Peter Mills’ website layout is not terribly flashy, but it is intuitive. Pine Tree Politics mentioned this earlier, but it bares repeating: What social networking options does Mills offer? Well you can join his Facebook page…or you can join his Facebook page. In this age of instant connection through the internet, that is just not enough. Nearly all of the candidates so far, Republican or otherwise, have not only a Facebook presence, but are also on several other social networking sites, from Twitter to LinkedIn to YouTube. In a sparsely populated state like Maine, these new media tools allow candidates to reach everyone from Kittery to Fort Kent in an instant. Not maintaining a presence on these services when your opponents do could be a serious misstep. As I’ve said before, I’d be surprised if candidates neglected any corner of the internet they could spread their message to. I’m sure Senator Mills will branch out as the campaign progresses.

I have examined several candidate’s website statements on how they would address certain issues in Maine. Mills’ “Plan” differs from just about everything I’ve read so far in that he takes a direct approach with his platform: “Here is a problem. Here is the solution”. Mills presents the problems facing Maine and his solutions briefly and clearly. Mills has presented his platform more effectively than any candidate so far. In our soundbite world, Mills and Twitter could be a match made in Heaven.

The Plan itself is divided into two sections, “Fix the State” and “Rebuild Maine”. The contents of Fix the State reinforce Mills’ recently challenged reputation as a fiscal conservative. Mills advocates accountability in in Maine’s budget, health care, human services and education. Reducing Medicade abuse, cutting duplicate public works services, and pay-as-you-go state budgets are key to Mills’ plan. Even though Mills appeared at the recent health care rally, he advocates something less liberal than what we’ve seen from Washington as of late. Senator Mills wishes to revive a competitive insurance market in Maine, quite distant from a lot of what is being talked about in health care lately. However, Mills does recommend expanding some forms of public health including health clinics in schools, rural health centers with sliding scale fees, and nutrition and health education. Though this may be too liberal for some, Mills’ position on health care is sure to grab the attention of moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats, and many Independents.

The “Rebuilding Maine” section focuses on the economy. As anyone who has driven in Maine can clearly see, our roads are a mess. Beyond the normal wear and tear of harsh winters, many roads and bridges are in a horrible state of disrepair. Cell and broadband coverage are lagging as well. In a state as rural as Maine, lacking in those areas hurts. Mills recognizes these issues, pushing for a comprehensive plan to bring our roads up to par and eliminate cell phone and broadband gaps within five years. Ambitious, but necessary. How can Maine expect to attract business if we can’t even show we are willing to keep up the networks they need to function?

Senator Mills goes on to say that by getting a handle on taxes and removing some regulations Maine can attract new business and revitalize the ones we already have. “In some cases, all it takes is for government to move out of the way.” says Mills. Mills supports bringing cheaper power to Maine through alternative energy and energy partnerships with our Canadian neighbors.

After reviewing Senator Mills’ record and plans if he should be elected, Mills seems to have remained the socially tolerant, fiscally conservative Republican he has always been. Mills’ recent courting of the left, as his plan shows, are not the beginnings of an Arlan Spector-esque dodge to the progressives. If Mills continues to hammer home his roots, and clearly explain his recent opinions, he will be a strong contender for the GOP nomination and the Blaine House – especially in a highly fractured field. This match is far from over however. Other GOP contenders will most certainly be stiff competition for Mills. We’ll have to wait until next June to see how Maine Republicans feel about the senator from Cornville.

Battle Lines Drawn on Marriage

(Cross-posted at the Augusta Insider)

As reported a few days ago, Stand for Marriage Maine submitted 100,000 signatures in support of the People’s Veto effort to repeal LD 1020. “It shows above all, that the people of Maine are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage.” says Mike Hein of the Maine Family Values Policy Council (formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine). The supporters of same-sex marriage disagree with Hein’s characterization of Mainers views on the issue. No on 1/Protect Maine Equality (formerly Maine Freedom to Marry) collected 60,000 pledges from voters that they would be voting no on question one. A press release from No on 1 stated that:

Our NO on 1 volunteers and field staff have gone door-to-door and neighbor-to-neighbor. We’ve attended sports and public events and everywhere we go, Mainers understand what’s at stake this November. That’s why we announced yesterday that we’ve collected more than 60,000 pledges to vote NO on 1.

Support and opposition to same-sex marriage has not followed party lines. Governor Baldacci, who did not support same-sex marriage in the past, reportedly waited until LD 1020 had reached his desk before he decided to sign. Voting in the House and Senate did not go along expected party lines in every case either. Rep. Sheryl Briggs of Mexico and Rep. Mike Willette of Presque Isle were two House Democrats to vote against LD 1020. Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess of Cumberland and Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville were two Republicans who voted in favor of LD 1020. Sen. Mills explained his vote in a comment to the Augusta Insider.

I voted for the gay marriage bill as a matter of personal conscience. I see no harm in allowing the state to license marriage between members of the same sex. If a church takes a different view, then that is for its own members to decide.
On the same basis, I voted consistently to support the anti-discrimination bills that came before the Legislature several times before the law was finally approved at public referendum in November of 2005.
Sen. Mills went on to state that he would have rather the public decide the issue of same-sex marriage.

I have long thought that these issues should be decided by public referendum, but efforts to send them out to referendum were rejected in 2005 and again in 2009. When called upon to vote on the floor of the Senate, I simply voted what I thought was right. Many other Maine residents may disagree with my vote but that is why the issue should be decided in the ballot box.

Sen. Mills has been the only Republican gubernatorial candidate at this point to clearly support LD 1020, though nearly all Democratic candidates have shown support for the bill in one way or another. This could cost Mills the support of socially conservative Republicans, but given the number of moderates in both parties, and the highly riven GOP gubernatorial primary, this is not likely to sink Sen. Mills’ campaign.

More Maine towns make voting even easier

The Maine government has just made acquiring an absentee ballot even easier. The state launched it’s new online absentee ballot request service. Maine Today is reporting that 189 cities and towns are participating in the program. This 2009 service is a upgrade from 2008, the first year online absentee ballot requests began. When the service began only 52 municipalities participated.

President Obama made a huge investment in early voting and absentee as did Sen. McCain in the 2008 election. Many early voting polls showed then Sen. Obama leading Sen. McCain. Though many had probably decided who they would vote for by mid October, when most of the polls were taken, early voting in Obama’s favor may have given him an extra boost with voters.

Now that absentee voting is even easier for many Mainers, will gubernatorial candidates take advantage? Can we expect to see candidates spending extra time in communities supporting absentee voting? In a close race, it could spell victory for those who invest.

You can sign up to receive your absentee ballot for 09 here.

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.