AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats voiced fierce opposition Thursday to an initiative by the LePage administration to give schools across Maine A-through-F letter grades based on their performance. However, the initiative does not require legislative approval and will be unveiled prior to the end of the school year.

LePage announced the idea during his State of the State Address in February. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen discussed it with lawmakers on the Education Committee on Thursday, where he said the grades could be released within two weeks.

Democrats and the Maine School Management Association don’t like the idea. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the Senate chair of the Education Committee, said the grades would embarrass schools rather than help them.

“I see this as a mechanism for shaming or threatening schools,” she said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, agreed. Though the method for assigning the letter grades has not been released by the Department of Education, Johnson said he was concerned that standardized tests don’t cover enough subjects to be an accurate gauge. He also worried that the system would drive people away from towns with low-performing schools.

“You’re going to tell people not to buy a house in that town,” he said in the statement. “You’re devaluing property.”

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the idea came from Florida, which already has a school grading system in place. At an education summit organized by LePage last month, Florida educators said the grading system caused an uproar at first but resulted in parents and communities rallying around schools to improve them. Connerty-Marin rejected the notion that the purpose of the grading system was to embarrass schools.

“We’ll give schools these labels and then the question is, ‘What are you going to do to help them?’” he said. “We’re not going to just simply label and run.”

In a related initiative, LePage has proposed spending $3 million over the next two years to create the Office of School Accountability. Connerty-Marin said the bulk of the $3 million will flow directly to struggling schools. The state administers a federal program to help low-performing schools that receive federal Title 1 funding in economically disadvantaged areas. The difference in the new program is that it will be available to all schools.

The grading system will be the subject of a biannual meeting Friday morning of a group called the Technical Advisory Committee, which is made up of education experts from Maine and across the country. Connerty-Marin said the committee, which is federally mandated, is scheduled to advise the Maine Department of Education on a range of issues Friday, but that the meeting is not open to the public. He denied statements made Thursday to the Bangor Daily News that attendees have been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements that bar them from talking about the meeting.

“Part of the point of the Technical Advisory Committee is to be able to provide the department with high-level expertise and advice,” said Connerty Marin. “Often we change what we do as a result of those meetings and the value is in being able to have private conversations about the work that we’re doing and to see if we’re on the right track. There are no nondisclosure letters.”

According to the Department of Education’s website, the committee includes Bowen; Maine Department of Education Policy and Programs Director Deborah Friedman; National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment Executive Director Brian Gong; director of the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Education Outcomes Martha Thurlow; Stephen Slater, the Oregon Department of Education’s assistant director of assessment; Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb; RSU 49 Assistant Superintendent Lenora Murray; and Maine Department of Education Director of Standards and Assessment Daniel Hupp.

Connerty-Marin said he was unsure how intertwined the school grading system would be with the process of choosing failing schools for the Office of School Accountability because neither process has been fully developed.

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.