AUGUSTA, Maine — Struggling schools that fail to make significant improvements within two years would be subject to aggressive action by the state and their students would be free to enroll at another school under a new proposal by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

Opponents of the governor’s education reform efforts said the bill represents another step toward his goal to have the state take over failing schools, though administration officials denied that.

The House of Representatives on Tuesday morning referred LD 1510, An Act to Ensure Statewide School Accountability and Improvement, to the Education Committee. The bill, sponsored by Education Committee member Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, seeks to give the Department of Education greater ability to funnel resources to all struggling schools.

Currently, the only funding for struggling schools comes from the federal government and flows to Title 1 schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. Title 1 funding is earmarked for schools whose students fall below certain family income guidelines. The LePage administration has proposed spending $3 million over the next two years to help non-Title 1 schools that are struggling, but the proposal is contingent on legislative approval, and the Education Committee has already recommended against it.

Johnson described LD 1510 as a follow-up to LePage’s prior efforts to help struggling schools.

“I believe in this bill,” said Johnson on Tuesday. “It will help schools that are failing or not doing well.”

LD 1510 would require schools identified as needing assistance to create and implement school improvement plans. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Tuesday that the criteria for identifying which non-Title 1 schools would receive assistance from the state are more complex than the A-through-F grading system unveiled last week, though that would be a factor.

“The grading system is going to give us some places to look but it’s not our intent to close the door in the face of a C school or a B school who comes to us and says ‘we really need help with something,’” said Bowen. “In our minds, if we get some type of statutory change with this bill and we get the [$3 million in] funding that was in the budget, that’s going to give us some tools to work with.”

All Maine schools are already required by law to implement a comprehensive learning plan that aligns with the state’s Learning Results thresholds and includes a method to transition to a proficiency-based graduation requirement. The difference under LD 1510 is that struggling schools would develop and carry out successful school improvement plans or face penalties.

Failure to improve within two years could lead the Department of Education to revoke the school’s “basic approval” under Maine law. It also would allow that school’s students to transfer to any other publicly funded school, with the cost of tuition and transportation paid by their former school.

School choice has been a key concept in LePage’s education reform initiatives, but so far has failed to gain the support of lawmakers, particularly Democrats. John Kosinski, government relations director for the Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers, said he sees the bill as flawed at its core because it relies on the A-through-F grading system, which the MEA is fervently against. But he also sees other problems.

“This is just an outgrowth of the administration’s desire to take over failing schools,” said Kosinski.

LePage made that very suggestion at a July 2012 press conference about his education initiatives. In addition to saying Maine students are “looked down upon” by out-of-state colleges and employers, LePage suggested that the state should take over failing schools.

That assertion was repeated in a November 2012 memo between the Department of Education and the LePage administration, which was obtained by the Bangor Daily News, and again in documents given to the Education Committee last month. In the latter document, the $3 million sought by LePage in his biennial budget proposal was described as “funding to put an Office of School Accountability into place to parallel the legislation we’ll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools.” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett described the language in that document as essentially a typo.

“The intention is not to take over schools,” said Bennett. “The intent is to improve schools and provide resources to schools to assist in their continuous improvement.”

John Nass, LePage’s senior policy adviser, said the documents were preliminary and that the governor has not proposed taking over failing schools.

“We have not proposed that and that is not something that we are currently considering,” said Nass. “What we want to do is provide some assistance to help schools improve.”

Neither Nass nor Bowen could say what it would mean for a school to lose its “basic approval” from the Department of Education. Nass said that language could have been carried over from federal legislation the bill was modeled after.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who co-chairs the education committee, said LD 1510 represents another step by LePage in what she called an extreme education agenda that dismantles traditional public schools by allowing students to leave for any reason they choose.

“It’s the other shoe that has dropped,” said Millett. “I don’t think this is about helping schools. It’s about slowly putting in place a very extreme agenda. … I’ve heard the education commissioner say that parents and children are the ones who know best. I’m a big believer that [if there are problems at a school] that you stay and work together to make it better.”

Bennett rejected the notion that the governor has any goal other than to improve schools. She said part of the intent of LD 1510 and other initiatives is to make it possible for the Department of Education to become more of a resource for schools and less of an oversight and enforcement agency.

“We’re hopeful that legislators will engage in a thoughtful discussion about this bill,” said Bennett. “This is not all about money, but the governor would like to see those schools that are struggling receive more resources.”

The Legislature’s Education Committee will likely schedule a public hearing on the bill within the next two weeks.

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.