The organization representing Maine’s public school teachers laid out in a recent news release a list of eight Gov. Paul LePage quotes, mainly about public schools, for reporters to choose from. The provided headline, “Caught on Tape: Governor LePage Trashes Schools Again,” made clear the Maine Education Association’s intent: attack LePage. In doing so, the organization happened to prove the governor’s point in one of the quotes.
That point, made by LePage at a York County Community College event, was that politics can be unpleasant: “I am trying to agitate the citizens of Maine. I’m not in this game to get re-elected. I don’t care about re-election. I will tell you it is the most corrupt, vile system in America, is politics. Because it’s more lies. I’m trying to agitate you folks to say we’ve had enough of this crap. Let’s fix it. And how do you fix it? One way. At the polls.”
LePage certainly isn’t blameless in the game of politics. But the MEA isn’t, either. In 2012, the MEA gave more than $120,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to Democratic and unenrolled candidates, and political action committees, including The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class. That PAC spent $758,000 on a number of races this election cycle, all to help Democrats. It also spread its share of misinformation through ads.
For instance, the PAC charged that Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, “sold out Maine women,” referring to bills like LD 116, 924 and 1457. However the votes on those bills happened on a day Gillway was absent, according to the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library. The PAC’s site also asserts, for example, that an Augusta Republican, Rep. Karen Foster, voted against LD 225, a research and development bond, when in fact she voted for it. She even voted to override the governor’s veto, according to the reference library’s records.
We’re not criticizing the job of the MEA — to protect the interests of teachers — but it is important for Maine residents to have all the information. That also includes putting LePage’s comments in context. The quote that got the most attention from the Wells event — and that spurred the MEA to say LePage was “caught in a bald-faced lie discrediting public schools” — involved the governor saying “tough luck” to Maine students. That sounds bad on the surface, but what was he really referring to?
He said charter school legislation has been a good step so far, but overall, “If you want a good education, go to an academy. If you want a good education, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school. Until the state of Maine decides, and the governor’s staff and the Legislature sit around the table and say, ‘What’s best for our students,’ we are not going to fix our schools.”
LePage spoke harshly. Clearly, using a rough tone and comparing public and private schools isn’t an effective strategy to motivate teachers, administrators and school board members to improve academic achievement (and it stirs up the opposition). But the governor’s comments were tied to a larger message about the need for reform and for different parties to work together on changes. Part of reform for LePage involves online and distance learning. It also involves school choice — making it easier for students to choose what school they attend — an idea strongly opposed by the MEA.
Consider that LePage did speak in placatory terms during the Eggs and Issues Breakfast. “I think I work best with an honest opponent,” he said, referring to how he worked with a Democratic council as mayor of Waterville and how he will relate to the new, Democratic Legislature. “If the Dems are really serious about sitting around the table, we’ll get a lot done.”
LePage’s uncut comments are an easy target for those who oppose his proposals. We just encourage you to get the whole story. Understanding the full picture includes putting his quotes in context, recognizing the agenda behind the accusations and knowing that both LePage and the MEA take part in their share of political games.