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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

5/21/2015 12:17:00 PM
Eye on Augusta: Full Legislature to Vote on Standardized Testing, Income Tax Elimination
by Andy O’Brien

Committee Dumps SBACs, Splits on Test Opt-Out Bill

This week, the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee unanimously voted to scrap the controversial Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) standardized tests, following a backlash from parents and teachers.

The committee amended the bill LD 1276, sponsored by Rep. Michael McClellan (R-Raymond), to require the Department of Education to form a stakeholder group made up of school administrators and teachers to select a new test. Possible new testing companies the state could contract with include the Northwest Evaluation Association evaluation (NWEA) and the SAT, the latter two of which have been used prior to when the state contracted with SBAC.

In March, Maine students in grades three to eight and high school juniors began taking the SBACs (also known as the MEAs) in math and English language arts, which replaced the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exams for elementary school students and the SATs for high-schoolers. The computer-based tests were designed by an 18-state consortium of academics to assess the national Common Core standards, which Maine implemented in 2013. Advocates of the new tests, including DOE Commissioner Tom Desjardin, say they are an improvement over previous exams and that they stress "higher-order" questions and critical thinking skills. However, critics argue that the test questions are confusing and too difficult for the grade levels being assessed and not appropriate for students with special needs. Teachers have also complained about constant software glitches with the computer-generated tests.

Given the committee's unanimous vote to scrap the SBAC tests, the bill is likely to also receive strong support in the Legislature.

In a separate vote, the committee voted 8-4 against LD 695, which would reinforce parents' rights to opt their children out of standardized tests. This spring, a number of school districts across the country have seen large numbers of students opting out of the new Common Core-aligned tests, with Belfast Area High School and Camden Hills Regional High School reporting opt-out rates among high school juniors as high as 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively. But while parents technically have the right to opt-out of the tests, some have complained that administrators have given conflicting and confusing information to parents about testing policies.

LD 695, sponsored by Assistant House Democratic Leader Rep. Sara Gideon, requires school districts to inform parents of their right to opt out by putting the information in a public place such as on the Internet as well as ensuring that teachers are allowed to notify parents of their rights. The bill also prohibits the state from penalizing a district when students have opted out and provides for alternate learning opportunities on test days. 

In a statement, Gideon said she would continue to fight for passage of the bill when the House votes on the measure, which could happen any day now. 

"We've only just started the conversation about high-stakes standardized testing here in Maine," said Gideon. "It's a conversation that is important to parents, students and educators. We need to think about the sheer number of tests our kids are taking, the effectiveness of these tests and what we may be losing with all the time devoted to test preparation. I'm looking forward to bringing this conversation to the House floor. There's too much at stake for us to not delve into this issue."

However, administrators have noted that under federal law, if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in the tests, federal Title 1 money could be withheld in the future. Next year, if fewer than 90 percent of students in a school take the test, the school automatically will receive an "F" on the LePage administration's school report card.

Voting against the proposed bill in committee, Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) said the bill was unnecessary.

"To me it seems improper to codify in state statute a federal right," said Hubbell." Moreover, doing so wouldn't alter the federal contract that Maine schools enter in exchange for federal funds related to state assessments. Third, the policy would preempt local authority over school requirements."

Committee Split on Income Tax Elimination Bill

Meanwhile, last week the Taxation Committee, on a largely party-line 7-5 vote, rejected a separate proposal to eliminate the income tax.

LD 1367, proposed by Gov. LePage, would put a Constitutional Amendment on the 2016 ballot asking voters: "Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to prohibit the Legislature, beginning January 1, 2020, from enacting or imposing a tax on the income of any person and prohibiting the State from levying or collecting an income tax for any period beginning on or after January 1, 2020?"

Currently, the income tax brings in about $1.7 billion in revenue, or more than one-third of the state budget. Property taxes generate 45 percent and sales taxes bring in 22 percent, which led Democratic and liberal critics to ask how the lost revenues would be made up, as education alone accounts for $944 million of the $6.6 billion budget.

"You could zero-out education funding, every penny, and it still would only solve half of the [revenue] problem if the income tax is eliminated," said Maine Education Association lobbyist John Kosinski in testimony against the bill to kill the income tax in Maine.

The liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy argued that if the income tax were eliminated, state and local governments would be forced to either raise local property taxes by roughly 40 percent or raise the sales tax rate from 5 to 11 percent and the meals and lodging tax to 16 percent in order to cover the cost of education. Gov. LePage has argued that if the income tax were abolished, the state could save money by consolidating schools, putting more classes on the Internet, and having one statewide teacher contract. In a press release, the governor called out the six Democrats and Independent Rep. Gary Sukeforth of Appleton for voting against the measure and encouraged his supporters to call and email them.

"The people of Maine should know how their legislators are voting, and only then will politicians be held accountable for their actions," said LePage. "It is a disgrace for these politicians to refuse Mainers the opportunity to vote on eliminating the income tax. I urge people to demand to know why their legislators don't want you to have a say in the process."

Sukeforth said it would have been politically popular for him to vote to eliminate the income tax, but it wouldn't have been responsible. He said he received several phone calls and emails from conservative activists across the state about the bill. However, he noted that the income tax and the resulting revenue shortfall wouldn't take effect until 2020, long after Gov. LePage has left office.

"I'm throwing it back in the governor's lap and saying, if it's such a good idea, why wait four years?" said Sukeforth. "All of these people who emailed me, I'm going to give them the phone number and email address for the governor, [Senate President] Mike Thibodeau, [House Republican Leader] Ken Fredette and I'm going to . . . tell them to contact them and say, if this is such a good idea, tell the governor to propose it in his next biennial budget."

Despite unanimous support from Republican leadership, the measure is highly unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

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