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home : • politics : • government
January 26, 2020

4/23/2014 4:59:00 PM
Eye on Augusta: Legislature Recesses; Will Return for 2nd Annual "Veto Day"
Standardized testing, teacher evaluations, food hubs . . .
by Andy O’Brien

Late into the night on Thursday, April 17, with empty pizza boxes stacked high in the hallways and all of the bills sent to the governor's desk, the bleary-eyed members of Maine's citizen Legislature headed back home to their regular lives. But with already nine more vetoes to reconsider and more on the way, the House and Senate will be back on May 1 for what the Democrats call "Veto Override Day" and Republicans call "Veto Sustain Day."

Several Democratic initiatives are living on borrowed time, waiting the 10 days before the governor will carry out his ritual execution by veto pen. An 11th-hour attempt to attract Republican support for Medicaid expansion awaits that fate. On the last night before recessing, Democrats proposed a New Hampshire-style compromise that would have used millions of dollars in federal Medicaid money to allow low-income Mainers to purchase heavily subsidized private insurance. The bill passed 94-14 in the House and 19-14 in the Senate, but the governor has vowed to strike it down. It will be the fourth time he has snuffed out Medicaid expansion.

After the Legislature went home last week, the governor brought his veto tally up well over 140, rejecting another 14 bills, including a revamp of the teacher evaluation system, as well as measures concerning metallic mineral mining, funding for "food hubs," welfare studies, regulation of telephone utilities, and others. But whether Republicans will back the governor on all those is an open question.

In a series of overwhelmingly bipartisan overrides in the past month, even rank-and-file Republicans have displayed exhaustion with LePage's style of "governing by veto." The governor has taken a particularly rigid stand against bills that use any resources from the executive branch; even bills that have received firm support from his own party. On April 8, the governor vetoed LD 1671, which aimed to protect certain waterways that contain brook trout and Atlantic salmon spawning habitats by banning motorized gold prospecting, only to be overridden unanimously in the Senate and 119-23 in the House without any debate.

"When the Legislature gives detailed instructions to executive departments on what work they should do, how and when, it is an overreach of their authority and a clear violation of the separation of powers," wrote LePage in his veto letter. But the Legislature disagreed and LD 1671 will go into law without his signature. In the end, it's the Legislature that holds the actual voting power, and the governor's only tool in the legislative process is the bully pulpit, which he uses often but not always effectively.

Teacher Evaluation Bill Vetoed

On Friday, April 18, the governor pushed back on a measure to change the way teachers are evaluated. LD 1747 grew out of a two-year process involving teachers, administrators, school boards and the Department of Education, but the group was divided on how much student standardized test scores should be used to evaluate teachers. The LePage administration has maintained that at least 20 percent of a teacher evaluation should be based on test scores, but the Legislature removed that provision in the final bill and left the task of coming up with a percentage to district stakeholder groups. The amended bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 118-20 in the House.

"If a student in a classroom shows no progress on the same test by which all other students at that grade level in Maine are being assessed, then the student has not learned," wrote LePage in his veto letter. "When this is the case then at least 20 percent of that failure must be rooted in teaching, and that teacher should be held accountable."

The governor also accused Maine Education Association, the state's teacher's union, of blowing up the agreement that he insisted was supported by the Maine Superintendents Association (MSA), the Maine School Boards Association (MSBA), and the Maine Principal's Association (MPA). He wrote that the organization's lobbyist "stood outside the [House] chamber, shouting and verbally assaulting members of the Legislature as they left." He added, "This kind of thuggish behavior has no place in the legislative process, but it is revealing in that it demonstrates this organization's attitude toward those who dare disagree with them."

In a written statement, MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley did not respond specifically to the governor's accusation, but stated that the MEA is a "professional association made up of educators who act respectfully and teach students to do the same." She said that LD 1747 was "fair and equitable" and represented a compromise.

And, contrary to the governor's assertions, according to written testimonies on LD 1747, the MSA, the MSBA, and the MPA all opposed the 20-percent requirement. The MPA argued that standardized test scores should be no more than 10 percent of a teacher evaluation, while the MSBA and the MSA proposed 15 percent.

In fact, the only organizations that testified in support of the governor's 20-percent rule were the Chamber of Commerce and StudentsFirst, a national organization supporting high-stakes testing, charter schools and other school privatization efforts.

"Every other profession has safeguards in place to weed out those in the profession who are not performing up to expectation. Why should it be any different for teachers?" said Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Jessica Laliberte, testifying in support of the 20-percent proposal.

In testimony, StudentsFirst lobbyist Benjamin Grant argued that standardized test scores should represent anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. The organization has backed the governor's controversial school grading system, which relies heavily on standardized test scores.

But while school privatization groups like StudentsFirst say test scores offer an accurate measure of student performance, critics say test results can be skewed because all students, including English language learners and those with special needs, must take the tests. Standardized tests are also narrowly focused on isolated skill sets and facts, which can lead teachers to ignore learning skills that cannot be so easily measured, such as motivation, creativity, curiosity, imagination, and conceptual thinking.

In testimony, Kilby-Chesley argued that there's also a strong correlation between poverty and test performance. She said her students with stable homes and parents who were actively engaged in their child's learning often performed well academically.

"I also had children who slept on the backseat of the car or lived for months in a tent with numerous siblings, who had their only daily meals at school and when school was out didn't know where the meals would come from," said Kilby-Chesley, a 33-year veteran elementary school teacher. "I had kids who didn't see parents because the parents were working two, or sometimes three, jobs. Older siblings raised younger siblings, or worse yet children were left alone for long stretches of each day. I also had children who arrived at school with bruises, burns, broken limbs, and indications of sexual assault, the result of 'adults who were in their lives.' These children came to school and found it to be a safe refuge. But they weren't always ready to learn."

Last year, a Bangor Daily News analysis of DOE data found that among the nine high schools in Maine that received an A under the state's new grading system, none had more than 20 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch rates, which is the measurement used to evaluate the socioeconomic status of students. The newspaper also reported that no high school with an F grade had less than 40 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch rates. The report noted that Governor James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, with a 97-percent free or reduced lunch rate, received the worst elementary school score in the state.

The Legislature will reconsider whether to override or sustain the governor's veto on May 1. If the veto is upheld, the governor's rules will go into effect, requiring 20 percent of teacher evaluations be based on student test scores.

Sen. Johnson's Food Hub Bill Vetoed

Gov. LePage also vetoed a measure sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County) aimed at promoting farm product aggregation facilities known as "food hubs." Food hubs assist farmers with washing, processing, storing and distributing food products. LD 1431 directs the Department of Agriculture to administer competitive grants to assist food hubs in developing their business models as well as to create school food service training programs to help connect schools to local food hubs.

In his veto message, Gov. LePage argued that if people really wanted to buy local food, there would be no need for the bill. "If local food providers cannot convince local school districts that their products are superior and more economical to that of other providers, then state taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize these providers in order to overcome the natural forces of a free market," wrote LePage.

In a written response, Sen. Johnson said the bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate and 120-19 in the House, "helps the food service in more Maine schools succeed in providing healthier food for our children just as innovative school systems in Maine are already doing."

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