February 4-8, 2013

Bluster and improvement

Our committee had been scheduled to receive a briefing from the Department of Education on Monday.  But, after the committee’s report to Appropriations last week on the supplemental budget which was followed by the Department issuing a scathing press release blasting the majority’s recommendation to extend the Governor’s curtailment to include the charter schools, the Department cancelled the briefing.

There was, of course, no way officially to connect the two events.  But, one good consequence was that I got an unplanned day off from Augusta and instead got to attend a Bar Harbor school board meeting at which we heard some good reports from teachers on the progress they’re making in professional collaboration with their peers in other districts as part of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.

Never mind the political bluster.   It’s through these individual teacher-to-teacher collaborations that the real work of improving Maine education is happening.

Maine’s debt to Critical Access Hospitals

On Tuesday, I attended a breakfast at the Maine Hospital Association with representatives from Maine’s rural community hospitals – not only our own MDI Hospital, but also hospitals in Blue Hill, Machias, Calais, Houlton, Millinocket, and Lincoln.

In order to ensure rural access to critical health services these hospitals have been federally designated since 1997 as Critical Access Hospitals which allows them direct reimbursement for certain allowable Medicare and Medicaid costs. They are not reimbursed for community health, charity care, or bad debt.

In 2004, in order to leverage state access to federal Medicare and Medicaid revenue, Maine implemented a “tax” on Critical Access Hospitals which triggers a federal “match.”  A portion of the federal “match” is then returned to the hospitals.  Over time the balance of their respective share of “tax” vs. match has become increasingly unfavorable to Critical Access Hospitals.  In 2012 MDI Hospital’s “tax” share was $812,071.  Their “match” reimbursement was $260,054 for a net loss of $552,017.

The Governor’s supplemental budget proposes to reduce the reimbursement rate to these hospitals by an additional 8%.

Under present structure, the effective rate of reimbursement for Maine’s Critical Access Hospitals is $0.87 for every dollar of expense.  As a results these hospitals are operating at a deficit.  Because Critical Access Hospitals are funded in proportion to their expenditures, any effort to rebalance their budgets by reducing expenditures proportionally reduces their revenues.  So, to balance MDI Hospital’s budget, for example, every $1000 reduction in revenue has to be balanced by a $2080 reduction in expenditures.

Under the Governor’s proposed 8% reduction, MDI Hospital would lose $311,104 in Medicaid revenue.  To balance their budget in proportion to the reduced revenue, the hospital will need to cut its expenses by $647,096.  If implemented through the supplemental budget, this reduction would require significant layoffs and curtailment of local healthcare services.

Along with MDI Hospital’s president Art Blank, I have spoken with Peggy Rotundo, the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee about the consequences to our community should this part of the supplemental budget get approved.  I believe the Appropriations Committee understands our concern.

Tuesday evening, the Governor addressed a joint session of the legislature.  Among other points, the Governor repeated his interest in paying down the $275 million debt owed to hospitals.

As the Governor has occasionally framed this as a partisan issue, Democrats find this frustrating because they believe the Governor fails to credit them with paying down $742 million in hospital debt from 2005 to 2010 and for instituting the current “pay-as-you-go” system to hospitals in 2009 which stemmed the debt accrual.

Nevertheless, I hope that repaying the hospital debt is matter of common interest and that it doesn’t get derailed by partisan characterization.

Governor grades education

Also during his State of the State address, the Governor announced an initiative to have Commissioner Bowen give letter grades of A,B,C,D, or F to all Maine schools, presumably based on their students’ performance on standardized tests and their graduation rates.  To me, this seems an oddly over-simplistic measure given the other initiatives currently underway in Maine education to broaden educational pathways for students and recognition that modern educational ‘achievement’ is fundamentally more complex than letter grades satisfactorily can indicate.

But the Governor consistently has couched his criticism of Maine schools in statistics that would appear to demonstrate that Maine schools are failing.  During his address on Tuesday, he said:

As a whole, Maine’s achievement in academic growth is far below the national average. We are next to last. Twenty years ago, Maine was in the top five, and we bragged it for 20 years. Now we’re next to last, because every other state has woken up. They’ve woken up to the Finlands, to the Hong Kongs, to the Shanghais, to the Canada, and they’re beating us, straight up. We need to be more aggressive in the standards of our education and the demands of our schools.

The misrepresentation here is that the Governor is comparing current growth in test scores a lagging measure for Maine with absolute placement in test scores, a measure by which Maine students still perform very well against the national average.

Academic warranty

The Governor also announced his intention to assess public school districts for the cost of remedial classes taken by students in Maine’s community colleges.   Initially there may be some popular reflexive attraction to this concept – for penalizing school systems for graduating students without college skills.  But I believe it’s important to bear in mind that the average age of a student entering the community college system is 27.  How long is it reasonable to expect a public school to provide an academic warranty on its graduates?

Learning from Finland

The real question of course is not about whether Maine schools should be working to improve.  They should.  The battleground is over what policy changes are likely to effect improvement.

The Governor has made it plain that he thinks Maine educational capacity can be increased by concurrently cutting Maine public schools’ governance and finance while simultaneously increasing the number of new charter schools and creating new entitlements for students to attend private and parochial schools.  I’m skeptical.

In his speech, the Governor referenced Finland as one case study of a system of exemplary school achievement.  Yet Finland employs none of the policies the Governor hopes to emplace in Maine. Finland has a robust social safety net, a strong professional class of unionized teachers, and virtually no program of summative standardized testing to judge the academic performance of either students or their schools.

The Governor has pledged to bring experts to Maine in March for a conference on best educational practices.  Whether or not the Finnish model is presented at this conference will tell us a lot about the Governor’s open-mindedness towards learning how to improve Maine’s capacity for education.

Guns and domestic violence

Governor LePage deserves real credit for his focus on reducing domestic violence in Maine. On Thursday, I attended the press conference at which the Governor charged a new task force with ensuring that domestic abusers don’t easily have access to firearms, a topic which is rife with political pitfalls.

Gun control is an issue on the minds of many of you, I know. I appreciate all your emails and letters. I assure you that I will pick my way through this issue as carefully and thoughtfully as I know how.

Landlocked Salmon and Brook Trout

On Wednesday morning, I met with Dennis Smith from Otter Creek and Jeff Evangelos, the Representative from Friendship, to discuss a bill that I’ve put in at Mr Smith’s request.to improve the state’s management of landlocked salmon and brook trout.  Representative Evangelos serves on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and supports the effort.  The bill is still being drafted and is not yet published.

Maine’s school funding model

On Wednesday morning, our committee heard a presentation from Picus Associates on their plan to review and analyze Maine’s Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ school funding model.  Picus will bring the experience from studying other states’ funding models.  Particularly, I’m looking forward to hearing more detail about how Maine compares with Vermont which is in many ways demographically an educational peer in academic achievement and school governance.

This presentation was followed by a committee forum on Thursday afternoon at which we took public comment on concerns related to the current model.  Picus Associates recorded the comments.  The first phase of their report will be returned April 1st.

Also on Thursday, the Maine Center for Economic Policy released this report:

Briefings on school choice

Also on Wednesday, Commissioner Bowen reported to the committee on the stakeholder group that was formed at the end of the last legislature in response to the Governor’s late session initiative to implement a system of school ‘choice’ in Maine.

The last education committee had found the problems both of governance and of local funding represented in that initiative to be substantial and thorny and so had charged this stakeholder group to hammer out a workable model for implementation.

But the Commissioner report only that the problems had proven too difficult for the stakeholder group to resolve.  So the matter of school ‘choice’ remains stalled at the starting line for now.

Over the same period, Maine school superintendents report a substantial increase in the number of student transfers that Commissioner Bowen has unilaterally approved by overruling transfers that superintendents had individually denied.

The superintendents, who typically approve nine out of ten transfer requests as being legitimately in the best interests of the applicant, fear that unprecedented increase in overrides represents a back-door implementation of school choice by the Commissioner, largely invisible to local schools and the taxpayers that support them.

Control and review of these superintendent agreement overrides are the subject of several legislative requests for bills this session.

Supplemental budget negotiations

The Appropriations Committee is continuing to negotiate the details of the supplemental budget.

The Committee has reached consensus on the less controversial sections of the budget.  They are still working on the more difficult parts which include:

  • General Purpose Aid to Education
  • the General Assistance cap
  • Retiree ad hoc COLA
  • Charter school participation in the curtailment
  • The Governor’s elimination of the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly Program

This work will continue next week with the hopes that the supplemental budget can go to the full legislature by the beginning of the following week.

Carbon cap

In encouraging news, Maine and eight other northeastern states that participate in the regional cap-and-trade market for carbon have agreed further to lower utility emissions.

Administered through Efficiency Maine, proceeds from the sale of these emissions credits have benefited many Maine industries including Madison Paper, the Verso mill in Bucksport, and the Jackson Lab here in Bar Harbor.

Maine Environmental Priorities

On Thursday morning, the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition hosted a breakfast meeting with legislators outlining four bills that the coalition will be supporting this session

  • An Act To Improve Maine’s Economy and Lower Energy Costs through Energy Efficiency, Senator Boyle
  • An Act To Open the St. Croix River to River Herring, Rep. Soctomah
  • An Act To Protect Water Quality and Avoid Taxpayer Clean-up Costs from Metallic Mineral Mines, Rep. McCabe
  • An Act To Further Strengthen the Protection of Pregnant Women and Children from Toxic Chemicals, Senator Goodall

Upcoming week in Education

The Education Commmittee begins public hearings this week on this session’s education bills.

Representative Brian Hubbell,
Maine House District 35
Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Mount Desert

66 Park Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
(800) 423-2900 (Augusta)
288-3947 (home)

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