Beyond School District Reorganization: A Vision for Education Reform

Read the full report | Just before the December 1st deadline for Maine’s school units to submit their district reorganization plans, the Maine Department of Education released a long-awaited proposal to amend the embattled consolidation law, claiming at the time that the suggested changes would “remove barriers to consolidation.” The department’s proposal amends some of the school funding provisions of the original legislation, but otherwise leaves the controversial law in place. In so doing, the department suggested by its actions that they consider the “barriers to consolidation” to be largely technical in nature, ones that could be remedied with a relatively narrow piece of legislation.

This was a disappointing move for the Baldacci Administration and one that is unlikely to restore the public’s faith in the troubled law. The reorganization plan has many flaws on so many levels that a better approach might have been for the administration to at least seek a moratorium on consolidation activities until the law could be substantively reworked during the upcoming legislative session. Doing so might have also given policymakers the time to bring to the consolidation effort something that it sorely lacks, which is a meaningful purpose.

Opposition to the reorganization law has generally been characterized by the plan’s supporters as having its roots in some kind of narrow and provincial self-interest on the part of local school boards and superintendents. But a careful reading of news reports from around the state indicates that beyond the issue of local control is the fundamental question of what is to be gained by completely restructuring a system of school management that is been in place for more than a century. Why, in short, is Maine doing this? Is it just about saving the state budget some money?

The governor, to his credit, included in the consolidation plan he set forth a year ago a series of reforms that went well beyond simply generating budget savings. As a part of his proposal, the governor suggested the creation of new college scholarships, extensive teacher training opportunities, and an expansion of the school laptop program. Whatever one thinks of those particular initiatives, at least the governor gave school and community leaders a few reasons to invest themselves in the task of reinventing how their schools are run. The schools, he claimed, would be better for it.

The legislature dropped the governor’s reform ideas and the opportunity to make the reorganization effort about something more than balancing the budget. They had a chance to talk about better schools and about how reorganization would boost student performance, but they didn’t. Now the reorganization law is back before them again, in dire need of reform.

What should the legislature do? Substantive changes to the law are certainly in order, but legislators have an opportunity here to go well beyond tinkering with the existing law. They should figure out a way to actually use the reorganization of school governance to improve teaching and learning in Maine schools. To that end, we suggest that they consider the following:

• To make the reorganization of school districts more successful, the law should permit not only the creation of Regional School Districts, but the creation of Regional School Unions, which would allow school districts to remain independent while sharing resources and improving services. These collaborative structures would work better in many settings.

• Aside from generating savings and improving services through the sharing of resources, the primary function of these regional units should be to implement a new student assessment system and an extensive professional support program to help teachers and administrators respond effectively to what student assessment data tells them.

• That data from these improved assessment systems should be used to implement a performance-based compensation system for Maine’s teachers, to include bonuses for difficult-to-fill teaching fields and incentives for professional leadership.

• That opportunities for school choice should be dramatically expanded, including access to post-secondary institutions and online “virtual schools” that may offer classes otherwise unavailable to students. All families, not just the well-off, should be allowed to send their children to any school, public or private, that best meets the educational needs of their children.

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