BANGOR, Maine — The five candidates for governor on Wednesday laid out their visions for improving education in the state but tied the costs for improvements to cost-cutting in other areas.
In a televised forum Wednesday night, Republican Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott took turns answering questions read by students. The 90-minute exchange was sponsored by WABI-TV and the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, which hopes to make education the center of Maine’s economic development strategy.
Cutler listed public charter schools and performance rewards for teachers while LePage said lowering the 20 percent high school dropout rate needs to be addressed.
“We need to find those kids, and we need to find out what motivates them to return to school,” said LePage, the Waterville mayor who’s been leading the race in polls.
Mitchell, a former teacher and current Senate president, called early childhood education her top priority and said that although state university tuitions are lower than in other regional states “we need to work on that.” She also favors expanding pre-kindergarten to every school in the state.
Moody called for co-op programs that get students out of the classrooms and into job sites, and Scott said a partnership with business is needed to teach students skills that are in demand.
But the discussion kept returning to finding the money to pay for educational improvements. Cutler said his No. 1 educational priority — merging the state university and community college systems — will save money. LePage, noting that the next governor will face a $1 billion shortfall in the two-year budget, said he would reduce “the size and scope of government.”
“The state needs to be doing more with less, and each community needs to do more with less because we don’t have a printing press,” LePage said.
He proposes allowing high school students to attend an extra year so they can get a start on college courses while saving money on tuition.
Moody, like LePage, said making Maine more business-friendly by easing regulations would draw more revenues to pay for programs.
Mitchell proposed having the state renegotiate its contract for liquor distribution, which she believes will generate millions of dollars for education programs. She said the Legislature has done its best to fund education despite the recession, which has ravaged the state budget.
The current two-year budget is about $5.8 billion.
Candidates expressed support for closer ties between agriculture and education. Cutler supports a magnet high school for agricultural sciences, and Mitchell noted she supports making schools buy 25 percent of their food from Maine farms.
The governor’s office is open because Democrat John Baldacci is completing his second, four-year term, the most constitutionally allowed.