AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee will announce Wednesday a new proposal for grading schools that they said will replace what they call a “scarlet letter grading system” implemented by the LePage administration last week.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who are co-chairmen of the Education Committee, will propose “a fair evaluation system that involves education stakeholders and is based on student progress and local improvement measures,” according to a news release. Democrats have been vocal opponents of the grading system for myriad reasons.

According to Democratic spokeswoman Ericka Dodge, the legislation being brought forth by Millett would create a task force of lawmakers, educators, parents and other education officials to develop a new school rating system. Dodge said that provision is in response to the fact that the Department of Education developed the A-through-F system internally and without a chance for public comment or input by legislators or educators.

Though details about the proposal were sparse, Dodge and Millett said their idea would do away with letter grades in favor of some other ranking method, though they haven’t developed exactly what that will be. Dodge said the new grading system would consider longer periods of time to gauge student improvement, use data related to how much remediation Maine students need when they get to college or the armed forces and take into account factors such as a community’s wealth and a school’s number of special education students.

But Dodge said a key provision of the rating system will address one of the most widespread complaints against the grading system: that it pits wealthy communities that can afford higher-than-average spending on education against poorer ones that can’t. Millett said she favors comparing schools to their peers, as defined by factors such as community demographics and per-pupil spending.

“It’s not fair to compare a Cape Elizabeth against a district that has a 60-percent free and reduced lunch rate,” said Millett, who added that other states that grade their schools take demographic differences into account.

Millett said she and other lawmakers tried to insert themselves into the process of developing the letter grading system by asking the Department of Education to brief the Education Committee, but she said that didn’t happen early enough in the process and when it did, the presentation from Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was brief and general in nature.

“This [letter grading system] has been a concern for quite awhile in our caucus,” Millett said. “We got the data the same day the public did. If we’re going to grade schools, we should have something in place that everyone buys into and supports.”

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, said he couldn’t comment on the Democrats’ proposal until he sees the details, but said he’s pleased that the release of the school grading system has people of all political persuasions talking about education reform.

“I think this is a great starting point for our conversations about how to improve education,” Langley said. “There are a lot of factors we need to work on, including how to mitigate the effect of poverty on students. … That will take more than just the school grading system.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday that Democrats are late to the conversation and that the Department of Education studied school grading systems in a dozen other states and New York City before implementing Maine’s.

“The Democrats have known we’ve been working on this initiative for months,” Bennett said. “This alternative is late in the game.”

The Democrats will also discuss other measures they favor for improving Maine’s public schools at a press conference scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Bowen said Tuesday afternoon that he was not familiar with the Democrats’ proposal and therefore could not comment on it. However, he has said in the past that the grading system is a “starting point” and that adjustments to it may be warranted in the future.

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.