AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to head the Department of Education pledged Wednesday to tap into the decade he spent in the classroom and his work as an education policy analyst to help innovate Maine’s public schools.
But the state Board of Education and some lawmakers pointed to Stephen Bowen’s lack of administrative experience as a potential weakness for the commissioner candidate. And Democrats are expressing concerns about Bowen’s ties to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that has backed charter schools and other controversial reforms.
A former middle school and high school teacher, Bowen has directed the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s education program since 2007. The former legislator has for the past several months held a prominent position in LePage’s inner circle, serving as senior policy adviser.
The 41-year-old Rockport resident actually was the first of numerous candidates to turn down the education commissioner post after LePage approached him about the job in December. But Bowen said Wednesday that as the search continued, he was inspired by LePage’s vision and intrigued by the challenges facing the department.
“I found as I went on and was learning about more of the possibilities, I was growing more enthusiastic by the day about the opportunities for education reform that we have in Maine,” Bowen said.
If approved by lawmakers, Bowen would take over leadership of a department that consumes roughly 40 percent of the state budget. Some observers already are questioning Bowen’s nomination, however, due to his lack of administrative experience and views on how to reform Maine’s schools.
“There are a lot of good people here in the state of Maine that could have been the commissioner of education, and I’m concerned about the nomination of Stephen Bowen,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat and Senate assistant Democratic leader.
LePage had planned to announce Bowen’s nomination last week but postponed it until Wednesday to allow the State Board of Education time to interview the candidate, as required under Maine law.
Maine statute requires the board to provide the governor with a “written appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses” of the candidate and requires the governor to consider the feedback. But the board’s feedback is merely advisory.
In a Feb. 14 letter to LePage, the board listed Bowen’s strengths as his policy-writing experience, knowledge of the political process and high energy level. The board, which met for 2½ hours with the candidate, also noted Bowen’s past teaching experience.
But summing up the candidate’s weaknesses, the board pointed out that Bowen has “very limited administrative experience and qualifications” and little background in implementing educational reform. Board members also wrote that Bowen “lacks the technical training to understand the legal entrapments of educational regulations” and noted the candidate’s “lack of positive comments” on past and present education reform initiatives.
Several board members, reached Wednesday, declined to comment on Bowen’s nomination.
Asked about the board’s statements regarding Bowen’s lack of administrative experience, LePage said you can buy that type of know-how.
“What you can’t buy is leadership, loyalty and the most important thing: somebody who cares about the kids,” LePage said.
A Maine native, Bowen grew up on a dairy farm in the Hancock County town of Penobscot. He received his undergraduate degree from Drew University in New Jersey and a master’s in education from George Mason University in Virginia.
After teaching in Virginia, he joined the staff at Camden-Rockport Middle School in 2000 as a social studies teacher and remained there until he joined the Maine Heritage Policy Center in 2007.
If confirmed, Bowen said his most important job will be to build consensus among teachers, superintendents, department employees and the community about the types of innovative reform that the state should implement.
“Too many times, we ask teachers and educators to lurch from one reform to the next and the outcomes for kids, which is the only indicator that matters, barely improved,” he said.
Bowen, like LePage, is a strong supporter of performance-based pay for teachers as well as charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are granted more flexibility than traditional schools but must meet specific benchmarks.
As head of the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s education division, Bowen has written extensively on such policy issues as school choice, education finance and consolidation. He also wrote a column for the Bangor Daily News opinion section.
Last year, Bowen was highly critical of the Baldacci administration’s application for federal “Race to the Top” funding, which he called “embarrassingly weak.” Despite decades of reform attempts, Bowen said Maine has “barely moved the needle” in terms of student achievement. To do that, he said, will take innovative reform.
“We need to get schools on a new course, one that replaces an early 20th century, industrial-era model of schooling that is built on a 19th century agrarian-era school calendar and replace it with a 21st century school system that responds first and foremost to the individual needs of kids,” he said.
Bowen’s association with the Maine Heritage Policy Center is likely to draw the attention of Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning groups.
House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said Wednesday she hopes Bowen will help build coalitions on policy proposals and put aside the political rhetoric of an organization she described as “notorious for manipulating and misrepresenting information to support a right-wing political agenda.”
Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association, acknowledged that the teacher’s union has disagreed with proposals that emerged from the policy center under Bowen. But Gray said he believes LePage made a “good selection” given Bowen’s teaching and legislative experience
“He understands the challenges teachers are dealing with in today’s school system as opposed to 20 to 30 years ago,” Gray said. “One thing I have found with Steve is he is very willing and open to sitting down and having a discussion, sharing information and articulating his perspective on issues.”
The first step in the nomination process for Bowen will be a public hearing before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Co-chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said he expects the candidate will face some tough questioning.
Langley, a former culinary arts teacher, said that he believes Bowen will make up for his lack of superintendent experience through his knowledge, passion for students and willingness to bring people together.
“Every conversation I have had with him comes back to kids,” Langley said. “He is a very student-centered person.”