AUGUSTA, Maine — A new teacher evaluation and termination process proposed by the LePage administration sparked debate in Augusta on Wednesday that pitted proponents of due process in employment against those who say it’s too hard for a public school in Maine to fire a poor-performing teacher or principal.

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee spent more than four hours Wednesday afternoon hearing from dozens of stakeholders on both sides of the issue. At one point, Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, called the measure “the ultimate penalty for teachers,” while Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told the committee that “no other bill you’ve heard this session has the potential to have the positive impact on education in Maine that this bill does.”

At issue is LD 1858, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership. Among other things, the bill would establish an “effectiveness rating” system for teachers and administrators that includes student progress markers. An educator who receives two consecutive years of “ineffective” scores could have his teaching contract canceled without the option to appeal the evaluations that led to the decision. As it currently stands, teachers use an appeal system through the Maine Educational Association to contest bad reviews.

The bill also would require school districts to implement professional development opportunities for those who score low in the rating system and sets more rigorous teaching qualifications, such as an extended student-teaching experience and the passage of mathematics and reading tests for middle school teachers. If passed by the Legislature, the system would be phased in between this fall and the 2014-15 school year.

Though there was fervent opposition to what some educators said was a stripping of their due process rights, a major hurdle for LePage’s bill is funding. As proposed, a portion of Essential Programs and Services Funding — which constitutes the state’s share of public education funding — would be earmarked for the evaluation process and professional development training for evaluators and educators who receive poor marks. Other than some programs that involve matching funding from the state, this bill would mark the only instance where the state tells local school districts how they must use their state subsidy, according to testimony on Wednesday.

Bowen said the department has not yet calculated how much the system would cost statewide. A fiscal note attached to the bill couldn’t quantify that either, but said while the cost to state government could be absorbed within the Department of Education, the cost to local communities would be “significant.”

“We haven’t done the digging into the cost yet because we need to get a piece of legislation passed first,” said Bowen.

Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, who is a member of the education committee, questioned the financial impact on local school districts.

“By putting this in EPS, we’re reducing everything else in EPS to fund this,” he said. “Aren’t we putting a mandate on the communities?”

Bowen responded by saying that he hoped rising education funding under the LePage administration would increase again in the next biennial budget and cover the cost of the program, the bulk of which would be for training and professional development.

“I don’t see education funding going up in the current environment. Do you see it going up enough to cover this?” Lovejoy asked Bowen.

“I hope so,” said Bowen. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

Alfond then brought up the issue of earmarking state EPS funds for certain programs, which he said is an idea that has come to the Education Committee before and been rejected every time.

“This is part of the discussion that we’ll have to have,” said Bowen. “To what degree does the Legislature and administration say, ‘We’ll provide funds, but you have to spend it for this’? At the end of the day, we write a check and we don’t bind districts [about how to spend it].”

Representatives from the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, Associated Builders and Contractors and several educators voiced support for the bill. Paul Stearns, president-elect of the superintendents association, called the bill “the most significant improvement of teacher employment law in decades.”

Susan Campbell, president of the school board’s association, said the bill’s provision that a firing could be appealed at the local school board level gives educators all the due process they need, but she said she was concerned about how districts would pull off implementation.

“Our concern is that the process has to be properly funded,” said Campbell. “This process will take a lot of time and hard work. It is time we have to commit, however, because our children need the best we have to give them.”

Those in support of the bill, such as Connie Brown, superintendent of Augusta-area schools, hailed it as a way to cull low-performing teachers and principals from the profession.

“My job is to make sure I have the best teachers in front of kids every single day,” said Brown. “I applaud the department for bringing forth a proposal that would in fact do that. … I don’t believe that this strips away any aspect of a teacher’s due process rights.”

Several teachers testified that the new evaluation process would discourage educators from taking risks in terms of teaching styles and stymie challenges of administrative edicts.

“This language creates a climate of fear,” said Grace Leavitt, a Spanish teacher in Cumberland who is also the MEA’s local president. “My students cannot learn in a climate of fear. I cannot teach in a climate of fear. What this really does is take away our due process.”

Adam Leach, who teaches history at Bangor High School, said he was concerned about the “open-endedness” of the bill, in reference to the fact that the Department of Education would have to go through a rule-making process after the Legislature acts. He also said that a good teacher is something that’s hard, or maybe impossible, to measure.

“How can you measure the impact of a teacher in terms of the value added to an individual student?” he said. “The teacher rating scale is an attempt to take a qualitative measure and turn it into a quantitative one. It’s a measure of essentially an objective nature and should be recognized as that.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.