Feeding kids during the summer, charter schools, and changes to the school funding formula


August 31, 2011

Senator Justin Alfond went from being the chair on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to the lead on the committee in the 124th legislature. A number of his bills passed others he will likely re-introduce if he is re-elected. This exclusive interview is about some of his work on education this session.

According to the Maine Department of Education’s child nutrition 2011 report, nearly 45 percent of all Maine students qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch. How does your bill to feed hungry schoolchildren during the summer work?

Hunger is a twelve-month problem, not just a school-year problem. When a student is hungry, you can’t study, you can’t focus, and your attitude darkens. Hunger prevents our children from being the best students that they can be.

I’m part of a stakeholders group from Cumberland County who looked at hunger, food programs, and food pantries in the county. There are 16,000 meals served during the school year. In summertime that number drops to under 6,000. Ten thousand students in Cumberland County, a place people don’t think of as having hungry students, weren’t being fed every day.

We identified what some school distracts were doing to have summer food programs. Then we created a path for more schools to have summer food programs or if they didn’t want them to create public/private partnerships for nonprofits and businesses in the area to do so.

This summer the Department of Education has been working with school districts where 74 percent of their students receive free or reduced-cost lunch to create summer food programs. The program is up and running. As more students are identified in Maine, more federal funds will come to the state to help administer these programs. Most of the food — served during breakfast, lunch, and snack time — will be paid for by the federal government.

Your Act To Encourage the Use of Electronic Benefit Transfer Funds at Farmers’ Markets did not pass, why?

EBT benefits low-income people. The card readers are expensive for farmers’ markets to purchase and so are the transaction costs to the EBT cardholders. My bill would have increased the availability of fresh foods to Maine people, helping families and farmers.

I wanted to create a public/private partnership to donate more card readers to farmers’ markets, so they could accept more EBT transactions. I was going to work with the banks to reduce or eliminate the fees. But all the Republicans on the Health and Human Services Committee voted in a block against the legislation.

It wouldn’t have cost the sate a penny. All I was asking for was two letters: one from the Department of Health and Human Services, and one from the Department of Education.

Your Act To Update Maine’s High School Graduation Requirements passed, what does it do?

It will help better prepare Maine students using a standards-based system. Common-core standards and standards-based evaluations are becoming more prevalent in our schools; they need to be working in concert with the Maine Learning Results. This measure merges the three systems, so educators and parents will be clear on graduation requirements.

I made sure art and music will be treated equally in the curriculum. Now they are just as important as math and science, English and physical education.

Another successful law creates a new Web site for parents to compare Maine colleges, why?

When you are spending a lot of money on higher education for your children, you shouldn’t have to become a detective. You should be able to go online at the Department of Education’s Web site and see graduation and retention rates. That will now happen.

You had two measures to increase college enrollment, but they did not pass, why?

Former House Speaker Cummings passed these measures on a voluntary basis. I wanted to make them mandatory. Some high school students are so afraid of the costs of a higher education they don’t know that there are resources and grants and scholarships available. I wanted every student to fill out a financial aid FASA, form so they could see the aid available. Today jobs require higher-education skills. We need to get more students graduating from certificate programs, two-year community colleges, and four-year universities. I wanted students to fill out a college application.

You introduced a number of bonds for Maine’s institutes of higher education, but they were pushed back to next year, why?

We need investments in all our higher-educational facilities. But Gov. LePage and the Legislature would not have the necessary conversations about bonds to put more funds into our rural campuses, to improve STEM and increase access to technology. Thousands of jobs were left on the table, while we are still climbing out of the recession. It’s shortsighted.

Charter schools —

Rep. Mason, a first-year, Tea Party representative, introduced a charter-school bill which passed with amendments. Ten charter schools will be implemented in Maine over ten years. You are against charter schools, why?

There isn’t any clear evidence that bringing charter schools to Maine would positively change the results for Maine students. The bottom line is that there is a belief system that says, “choice is going to change results.” With that concept, proponents of charter schools believe that the competition which charter schools bring will make public schools better. Education is not corporate business.

I did some research of other states with charters and their graduation rates were much worse than the state of Maine’s public school graduation rates.

Maine has made a huge commitment to streamline and consolidate costs in every area, under Gov. John Baldacci. In education we have tried to control costs by bringing school administration districts together. To cut down on administrators, superintendents, busses heating, electrical and maintenance costs. We need to spend as much money as possible on our kids, in their classrooms. That is the objective. And we have cut costs, and improved education throughout the state, because we are cutting out bureaucracy.

Charter school legislation is adding a huge amount of bureaucracy to government—when Gov. LePage said he wanted smaller government. An entire new charter school commission of seven members is being created; three members will be from the Board of Education, others they will pick. This commission will have the power to approve a charter school in any town, anywhere in Maine, without holding any public meetings. People living in their communities will have no say and may have no knowledge of a charter school being built. No real conversation at the local level with the community has to happen.

The funding to public schools will be hurt in unimaginable ways. If a child leaves to go to a charter school, 99 percent of funding for that child will be taken away from the public school that child currently attends.

So, local public school funding will decline, but that public school still has to fund all the programs that it currently has. I worry about the slow drain of students to charter schools, draining away money from our public schools.

Right now we need $400 million to be injected into public school spending to get to the voter mandated 55 percent of state funding. That doesn’t seem likely in the near future, especially now we have charters. It is absolutely the wrong time to be introducing more bureaucratic costs — especially when the results aren’t glorious.

New EPS school funding —

The Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funding is designed to treat schools across the state equally, disbursing state funds for educational services. But a new law pushed through the State Legislature by conservative lawmakers favors rural school administrative districts over cities and towns with growing school populations. How did this pass?

This law will hurt schools beginning in 2012-2013, when it takes existing money from schools that are growing in size and redistributes it to schools that are regularly losing students. Schools will be forced to cut funding, fire people, or raise local taxes.

President of the Senate Kevin Raye did something unprecedented. He injected politics into the EPS funding formula and changed three elements that move over $6 million from some communities to others. He believes that rural schools do not make out equally with the EPS funding formula. He provided no substantial evidence to back up his claims. The Education Committee saw this and stated — in a bipartisan report — that we were against the concept of these changes. But the bill went ahead and passed the House, even though the majority of the representatives will see less funding going to their school districts.

No piece of public policy has ever changed the EPS formula. Now there is precedent, so if majorities switch back, someone could use their political power to change EPS funding again. The pendulum could go back and forth. This would be devastating to schools, because they would not have the confidence to plan needed curriculum and programs for the future of all our children.

Gov. John Baldacci’s introduced the EPS funding formula, and after public input safeguards were added. Raye had no reason to change the EPS formula, because of these funding protections for school administration districts.

There are two separate funds. One is a small, isolated school fund for $5 million to help districts with declining enrollment. The other is a $20 million fund to help communities that all of a sudden loose a lot of students — like Brunswick will with the navy base closure.

If this was so important then Raye should have put in a funding request to the Appropriations Committee to get new funding, not to take money away from one school district, depleting their resources, to give to another. Portland will lose almost $1 million, and others will face similar losses.