AUGUSTA, Maine — Four controversial education reform bills announced more than a month ago by Gov. Paul LePage and education commissioner Stephen Bowen face public hearings this week before the Legislature’s education committee.

The administration has called the education reform package an ambitious set of bills designed to put students first. The initiatives build on another bill that passed last year allowing charter schools in Maine.

Collectively, the governor’s legislation would: allow students to choose their own schools no matter where they live; allow state-funded tuition to private religious schools, ask schools to build better teacher evaluation systems and enhance career and technical education.

The bills already have drawn criticism from Democrats as well as the state teachers union and are expected to evoke spirited debate from educators and others this week.

Technical education

The least controversial bill will be heard first.

Members of the public can comment on An Act to Enhance Career and Technical Education beginning at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, in Room 202 of the Cross State Office Building, adjacent to the State House.

As written, this bill seeks to expand opportunities for students in technical and vocation education. LePage has said he’s not convinced the education system currently in place is preparing students for the reality of the work force.

The legislation would mandate that school districts with career and technical education centers alter their schedules so they match the traditional classrooms. It also would make it easier for students to receive credits that can be used if they enroll in the Maine Community College System.

So far, there has been little criticism of that proposal.

Teacher evaluations

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, the education committee will host a public hearing on LR 2773, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership.

In essence, this bill would require school districts to implement standardized teacher evaluation systems. If teachers do not meet criteria and improve performance over a two-year period, they can be put on probation and, ultimately, can be fired.

Last month, Bowen said school systems in other countries use a model that Maine should follow, which involves training their teachers and school administrators well and giving them plenty of support.

“We want to get out and really focus on teacher and leader effectiveness,” Bowen said. “[We’ll be] asking school districts over the next couple of years to build new and better teacher evaluation systems. We will see how well teachers are doing and the leaders are doing. We get information about what extra training opportunities they may need to go along with that.”

The Maine Education Association, which represents teachers, said it’s not opposed to better teacher evaluations but it does not support the governor’s proposal.

“The LePage plan for improving teacher quality focuses narrowly on increasing managerial control, punitive approaches that have failed in the past and lowering the standards for entry into the profession,” MEA President Chris Galgay wrote in a recent op-ed. “While MEA agrees that we need to change the way teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated, supported and held accountable, we recommend a comprehensive approach supported by research.”

Open enrollment and religion

Two public hearings beginning at 1 p.m. Thursday are expected to produce the most fireworks.

That’s when the education committee will take up LR 2774, An Act to Remove Inequity in Student Access to Certain Schools and LR 2775, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students.

The first bill removes one sentence from state law that says public dollars cannot be used to fund private, religious schools. Bowen and LePage said removing that sentence simply provides another opportunity for students who want a certain type of education. Any students can go to a religious school currently but they must pay tuition.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sits on the education committee, has criticized that bill.

“Using taxpayer money to pay for private schools is another example of short-sighted policy that chooses ideology over what’s best for Maine people,” he said “We should be doing everything we can to strengthen our public schools, which is an investment in our future work force. Anything less cheats our children and our economic future.”

LR 2775, which would create open enrollment in Maine, also is controversial. The state teachers union says it would cripple rural schools that already face declining enrollment.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who attended the news conference last month when LePage and Bowen announced the bills, said open enrollment could be problematic.

“School choice will put more of a burden on property tax payers, widen disparities between the haves and have-nots and weaken public education in rural Maine,” he said.

Bowen, however, has said school choice participants would set the number of students they would accept for the upcoming school year. If more students apply than there are openings available, the schools would hold a lottery to determine which students would be taken. The process would prevent schools from recruiting students.

Late session discussion

Some wondered last week why the bills had not been referred to committee more than four weeks after they were announced.

Galgay, the union president, said last week that he thinks the administration is delaying the bills to stifle public debate.

“I think it’s a strategy,” he told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s hold the bills until the end and let’s ram them through.’”

The LePage administration, however, said it was simply a matter of crafting the legislation and getting approval from the Revisor of Statutes.

Lawmakers have a lot to contend with between now and the end of the session in April. Bills were supposed to be reported out of committees by the end of this week.

That could leave little time for the education committee to debate the four bills after the public hearings but before they reach the floor of the House and Senate.