Eliot Cutler and Libby Mitchell have provided the public with their plans for education reform. Now Paul LePage takes his turn. Unlike Mitchell and Cutler, LePage has not released a specific education plan. At least not in the same manner as his chief opponents. LePage’s major education policy announcement is included in his “Turn the Page” plan. There is a brief outline on his website. Detail policy outlines are like oxygen to wonks. The more to pick apart and break down the better. If you’re a wonk, LePage’s proposals may leave you gasping for air.
In his “Turn the Page”(pdf warning) policy outline, LePage states that the goal of education is a quality job. His plan, says the candidate, serves that end. Putting aside policy for a moment, this is an excellent campaign tactic. Numerous politicos have repeated one mantra during this cycle. Guess which one. Tying anything, or perhaps everything, to a brighter economy will likely be key in this election. LePage is not the first to link a good education with good jobs, but he the connection he makes is the most blatant. Despite some early fumblings on education, LePage has made it into a kitchen table issue. Will his ed policy actually lead to a better education system or economy?
College Report Card
Learn to Earn focuses mostly Maine’s higher education system. LePage bases the first part of his plan on Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ 2006 report. Margaret Spellings crafted No Child Left Behind during her tenure as Ed Secretary. LePage has rejected this program saying the “program designed for improving inner-city schools has not worked in Maine”.
In the report Spellings called for improvement in four areas: access, affordability, accountability, and quality. At the time, Spelling’s proposal received varying reviews(pdf warning). Though the report was criticized as being “judiciously vague”, most agreed that the problems it addressed needed immediate attention. A study conducted(pdf warning) by the National Association of College and University Business Officers in 2008 stated that higher ed leaders found the report “generally positive and quite significant to the future of higher education”. That same report concluded that the “fundamental premise of the [Spellings Report] is valid and continues to be most worthy of continuing attention”. Not bad source material to draw from.
LePage hopes to co-opt the college “report card” suggested by Spellings for use in all of Maine’s public post-secondary institutions. The candidate’s system would be similar to the report provided by Rasmussen College(pdf warning). LePage seeks to provide students and parents with information a the following: cost (eg. fees, tuition,books, housing), graduation rates, post-gradation employment after one year, and graduate earnings. Bate’s College provides a wealth of information in it’s “Institutional Portfolio”. Bate’s could provide a home-grown model for LePage’s report card.
This is an excellent proposal from LePage. College degrees do not come cheap. Providing students and parents with as much information as possible can only help. The market works best when all the cards are on the table. Students will be the ones to reap the benefits from this increased openness. It would be hard to imagine there being too many critics of this proposal.
What would the cost of expanding this system to Maine’s public universities be? The University of Southern Maine, for example, collects student surveys at the end of each course. Students rank various elements of the course and the instructor. Part or all of this data could be used in USM’s report card, though it is outside the critera LePage hopes to cover. Addition costs of this program could be passed on to students through tuition and fee increases. The state is however already embarking on a massive data tracking endeavor. Some of the data collection needed for LePage’s proposed system could already be in place, mitigating the cost.
High School to the Workforce
LePage advocates linking employers with graduating high school students. Not every student will continue on to post-secondary school after high school. This is important to acknowledge. Maine should facilitate greater business and high school connections for all students. This would benefit not only those who wont immediately attend college, but also those in danger of droping out of high school and those looking to develop connections post-graduation.
New York’s “Skills Development and Career Education” would be a model for LePage’s program in Maine. New York partners construction and building trade employers with local school boards. This link will foster apprenticeships for those who make be seeking trade employment. LePage does not expand any further as to how he would accomplish this. How will students be linked with employers? Who will be responsible for forming the partnerships? Will only “promising students” be allowed to participate? What is a “promising student”? There are just too many blanks at this point.
Maine does have the successful Career and Technical Education system already. MCTE currently serves roughly 7,900 students, with 27 locations statewide. The program prepares students for college or job placement. Students at MCTE study in areas such as technology, automotive, healthcare, construction, and public service. Since there is already a quality system in place, it would be best to expand upon it rather than create something entirely new. MCTE should be involved in any “Learn to Earn” discussions involving high school education.
College Credit in High School
High schools have offered AP courses for college credit for some time. LePage wants to go another step further. The candidate will develop a system to offer college courses at the high school level. Students will be able to to intro courses, presumable core undergrad courses, so that “in five [sic] years of high school, they can graduate with a high school diploma AND an Associate’s Degree or two years of transferable college credits—all for free.”
LePage will base his proposal on North Carolina’s “Early College High Schools” program, which is actually part of a national effort by the same name. ECHS allows high school students to take college courses through partnered colleges at campus or online. LePage would similarly expand Maine’s college offerings to high school students. The candidate has stated he would increase the number of college courses provided online and offer students the opportunity to take online classes over the summer.
Maine’s university system has many introductory courses available online at this time. It would not be difficult for a student to enter a college degree program with their base course already out of the way. Or for a student to complete an Associates’ Degree and complete high school at the same time. Another important aspect of this program is the flexibility it provides students. A student that is not being challenged by the high school curriculum could easily seek out tougher material. Students could focus on particular study areas such as history, art, or literature that their high school does not have time to explore, due to standards restrictions.
Some of the funders of the national ECHS program should be familiar to those who follow education. The Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are just a few of the doaners. ECHS has stated that the cost for implementing their model may be 5 to 12 percent higher than a traditional high school. If LePage were to use this model statewide it would become exceedingly expensive. Given the benefits of this program, it could be a cost worth shouldering. However, there is nothing in “Turn the Page” to suggest what exact model LePage would follow or enough information to nail down costs.
The last piece of “Learn to Earn” is also the shortest. This is where LePage’s small-government leanings shine the brightest. According to LePage, government assistance for education and job training often overlap and are duplicated. Lousianna Governor Bobby Jindal “Commission on Streamlining Government” will provide the basis for LePage’s reform. Jindal’s commission has the following duties:
A. Review whether an activity provided by a state agency or entity should be eliminated, streamlined, consolidated, privatized, or outsourced to provide the same or greater type and quality of activity, function, program, or service that would result in cost savings or greater efficiency or effectiveness of service.
B. Recommend elimination, consolidation, privatization, or outsourcing of a state agency or entity, department, or function if a proposed elimination, consolidation, privatization, or outsourcing is demonstrated to provide a more cost efficient or more effective manner of providing a governmental service.
C. Review agency activities, functions, programs, and services to ensure they are not duplicative and are necessary, meeting or exceeding performance standards, and meeting the needs of Louisiana citizens.
D. Evaluate the operation of public institutions and services to determine if, given the evolution of available alternative resources, these services may be provided in a more cost-effective manner without impacting the quality or availability of needed services.
E. Recommend standards, processes, and guidelines for the Commission and state agencies to use in order to review and evaluate government activities to eliminate, streamline, consolidate, privatize, or outsource.
Recently, Louisianna state Sen. Jack Donahue said the Commission was progressing well, but further work was needed. The Commission has led to some reductions, including the elimination of some Department of Education contracts, but most admit there is more work ahead to close Louisiana’s $1.7 billion budget gap for 2011-2012. Could LePage use a similar system to reduce Maine’s budget? Would he find enough to streamline to make it worth anyone’s time? There is only speculation at this point.
Next we examine LePage’s other various education reforms.