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Maine Legislature Passes Broad, $92-Million Education-Reform Bill

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In an eight-day special session this month, the Maine legislature enacted what one state official termed its most far-reaching education legislation in 20 years.

The education-reform bill, signed immediately by Gov. Joseph Brennan, includes provisions for teacher stipends, grants to innovative schools, statewide high-school graduation requirements, standardized testing for students, and forgivable loans for prospective teachers, among other items. (See Education Week, Aug. 29, 1984).

Drawn up in June by the Governor's blue-ribbon Commission on the Status of Education in Maine, the measure is expected to cost about $92 million over the next three years. It will be funded by taxes on tobacco, alcohol, cable-television services, and real-estate transfers, as well as future estimated state surpluses. Most of the 13 initiatives approved by the legislature are scheduled to go into effect next August.

"This is probably the broadest one piece of legislation in the last 20 years," said Gregory Scott, legislative liaison for the state department of education. "In fact, the last time people were as excited as now was Sputnik and that was almost 30 years ago."

Key Provisions

The key provisions of the plan include:

More rigorous graduation requirements for all high-school students. They include: four years of English; two years of social studies; two years of mathematics; two years of science, one of which has to be a laboratory science; and one year of fine arts. Schools will also be required to offer a two-year sequence of a foreign language and computer-literacy programs. Elementary schools will be required to offer instruction in music, art, or drama, and the use of the library, as well as programs on the effects of substance abuse.

A statewide student-assessment program through standardized tests, to be given in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, beginning in November 1985. The tests will include reading, writing, and mathematics every year, and a social studies or science section in alternate years.

An annual $2,000 stipend for every full-time teacher, at a cost to the state of approximately $27 million each year. The first stipend will be awarded in February 1986 for the 1985-86 school year. This was one of the most controversial aspects of the bill, according to Mr. Scott, and the legislature agreed to set up a special committee, expected to report to the legislature in April 1985, to look into long-term ways to increase teachers' salaries.

An additional $17 million in state aid to local school districts over the next several years. The increase results from a change in the distribution formula.

Education grants, to be awarded to individual teachers or schools, or groups of teachers or schools, to encourage educational innovation. A total of $1 million was set aside for each year for such projects over the next three years.

A "Blaine House loan program," named after the governor's residence, to provide loans of up to $1,500 per year for tuition aid; 50 percent of the program's appropriation would go to high-school graduates who plan to go into teaching, 25 percent to able high-school graduates who plan to go into any field, and 25 percent to teachers already in the classroom who want to earn a degree in an understaffed field, such as mathematics or science.

Qualifying examinations for prospective teachers. Teachers will be required to take the National Teacher Examinations over the next three years, but they will not be required to pass it in order to be certified. Those tests will then be used to determine cut-off scores, and starting in June 1988, teacher candidates will have to earn a specific score to qualify for certification.

Mandatory kindergarten. Mr. Scott estimated that there are about six school districts without kindergartens in the state.

More Funding Needed

"We don't know the full impact of implementing these reforms past the next three years," Mr. Scott said. "We did tell the legislature to be prepared for us to come back [within the next few years] with another relatively major funding request to implement all this." Mr. Scott said if more funding is needed, the state would probably have to consider a major tax increase.

Representatives of the state's teachers' unions also expressed concern about the state's long-term ability to fund the reforms but said the bill "laid the groundwork" for a larger commitment to education.

"The bill has many positiveel40lpoints, but I don't think the $2,000 stipend will attract teachers," said Carl Leinonen, executive director of the Maine Federation of Teachers. "Many teachers are very skeptical and don't know how long [the stipends] will last. It's not going to be terribly productive if it just ends after two or three years."

'Lays Groundwork'

"In and of itself, I don't think this is a tremendous revolution in the schools, but it does lay the groundwork in terms of funding innovative ideas for education," Mr. Leinonen said. "The heart and soul, the real guts of the bill, concerning state funding of long-term increased teacher compensation, was sent to the state commission to work on. What will happen after three years will depend on what the commission comes up with."

The Maine Federation of Teachers, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers,3represents about 1,000 of the state's approximately 13,000 teachers.

Thomas Harvey, president of the state affiliate of the National Education Association, which has 14,000 members, including other school employees, said the bill was "a first step and continuing process in major education reform in the state of Maine."

'Critical Issue'

"The critical issue of recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest has not been fully addressed as far as compensation," he added. "I look forward to a permanent solution in 1988."

Mr. Harvey also said the taxes used to fund the education bill "offer only a short-term solution to the question of what we're going to do to fund education costs in Maine. We need to find a way to provide the money without pitting textbooks or school buildings against the needs of teachers."

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