Wednesday April 07, 2010 | 08:29 PM

The bill meant to eliminate Maine's prohibition on linking student achievement data with teacher and principal evaluations is on its way to Gov. John Baldacci's desk (see 5:24 p.m. update), where he's expected to sign it into law.

That's the conclusion to a flurry of activity over the past three days that, at times, left the bill's fate in doubt. Even after the bill's passage, Maine's ability to apply for Race to the Top funds and qualify for other federal school funds is still in doubt.

That flurry of activity surrounded Sen. Justin Alfond's last-minute amendment to empanel a five-member task force to pre-approve the slate of teacher evaluation models school districts must choose from if they're to evaluate staff using student achievement data.

I caught up with Alfond, Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay, and Maine Heritage Policy Center analyst Steve Bowen after the House and Senate tallied their final votes on the legislation. (Stay tuned for a full article in Thursday's newspapers.)

Alfond

Alfond said he wasn't phased by the Maine Attorney General's release of an opinion Wednesday afternoon that said the version of L.D. 1799 that passed didn't fully strike down the legal prohibition on linking student achievement data and teacher and principal evaluations.

"We reviewed it, and we feel we're doing everything we need to do to apply for the Race to the Top fund," he said.

Alfond said he was confident the legislation would allow a variety of evaluation models to proliferate, even after the July 1, 2011, deadline set for the task force to pre-approve any evaluation model school districts can use if they want to incorporate student data into their staff evaluations.

"Any good models will rise to the top before or after July 1, 2011," Alfond said.

If they come up after that date, he said, "we could go through a thorough process in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee" to see that more evaluation models are allowed.

Galgay

It's clear that Maine education officials will continue their work on the state's Race to the Top application, now that L.D. 1799 has passed. That doesn't mean, however, that the state teachers' union will be on board.

Maine's chances for a Race to the Top award hinge largely on whether the state Department of Education can get local school districts on board with the effort.

The districts will show their support by signing memoranda of understanding, and those documents include a spot for each local teachers' union president to affix his or her signature. (Delaware and Tennessee were successful in the Race to the Top's first round largely because they had such wide district and teachers' union support for their Race initiatives.)

"They don't have enough information to make that decision yet," Galgay said of local union affiliates. "We're advising them to get all the information before they make any commitments."

That doesn't change the fact, however, that the Maine Education Association has been opposed to changing education policy because of the lure of federal funds. The union wants to see more opposition foment to changing education policy in response to federal incentives.

"I think we're going to see, maybe, that Maine spirit of pushing back," Galgay told me.

Bowen

But that push-back spirit might cost Maine valuable progress in meaingful education reform, Bowen said.

"We've taken a step back," he said. "We're in a worse competitive position than we were before the passage of this bill in my mind."

The Attorney General's opinion is key when it comes to all matters Race to the Top. The state's top lawyer needs to sign the state's Race to the Top application, assuring federal officials that Maine law doesn't prohibit links between student achievement data and teacher and principal evaluations.

"It's the only opinion that matters," Bowen said. "It's the most important opinion in the state. If (the Attorney General) decides that we're not eligible because of this bill, then we're done."

The Legislature's passage of L.D. 1799 comes as Congress starts contemplating the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

If its renewal comes in the form sought by the Obama administration, most federal education funds would be tied to states' assurance that they:
• have strong data systems to track student achievement;
• have plans in place to turn around the lowest performing schools;
• have strategies to equitably distribute the most highly qualified teachers throughout school districts; and
• allow the linking of student data with staff evaluations.

"We're going to have to do this anyway at some point," Bowen said.

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