LePage considering changing his strategy on education reform following summit

Posted March 22, 2013, at 11:19 a.m.
Last modified March 22, 2013, at 5:53 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage (center) shares a laugh with Cony High School senior Michelle Zhang at the beginning of LePage's &quotPutting Students First" education summit in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013. Speaking at the podium is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
Gov. Paul LePage (center) shares a laugh with Cony High School senior Michelle Zhang at the beginning of LePage's "Putting Students First" education summit in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013. Speaking at the podium is Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said he’ll make efforts to bring more voices to the table on education reform following an education summit his administration organized Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

LePage, who sat in the front row for the duration of the conference, found himself a frequent topic for the summit’s keynote speaker, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett. Bennett has become a nationally known figure for his efforts at education reform, first in Indiana and now in Florida. The gist of his experience is that while he was able to implement numerous initiatives, he paid the price politically by being voted out of his education chief position in Indiana.

“Governor, you can’t govern from the State House,” said Bennett about midway through a boisterous and impassioned speech. “If you’re going to drive an agenda, you have to be willing to go out and face the public about what you agree with in your heart. Be everywhere. Be online. Be in person. … Governor, I ask this state to have this debate with you and never doubt your integrity, never doubt that your heart is with Maine children. Gov. LePage, I ask that you challenge your population to come to you with creative solutions.”

LePage said to reporters after the summit that he spend the majority of his time outside the State House, but acknowledged that his administration will have to change its methods if it wants to achieve its goals.

“We have to go back to my office and figure out a way to do it a little bit better so we can get it done,” said LePage. “Right now there’s an awful lot of pushback. What we heard today from Tony Bennett, the last speaker, is how not to do it, how some things that they did didn’t work out and didn’t resonate.”

Education groups were criticizing the conference even before it began because they said the agenda was loaded with people supportive of school choice, teacher and principal evaluations, school grading systems and other initiatives that LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have been pushing for the past two years.

Kelly Bickmore, president-elect of the Maine School Board Association and member of the SAD 22 school board in the Hampden area, took issue with the first session of Friday’s summit, which focused mostly on school choice and charter schools as means for students to find the learning situation that works best for them. Bickmore said public schools have the capacity to find solutions for students but their are too many laws, regulations and curricula to follow.

“Public schools have children on feeding tubes all the way to students who are academic superstars,” said Bickmore. “We take all comers. Nobody applies to come to our public schools, they just show up at the door.”

Kristin Malin, president of the Maine School Board Association, agreed.

“If public schools were allowed the same flexibility as charter schools, we wouldn’t need charter schools,” she said.

Legislative Republicans said in a press release Friday afternoon that they were motivated by the summit.

“The event went a long way toward creating a much-needed dialogue about education reform,” said Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta. “I’ve always felt that more money isn’t always the answer. We need systemic change and new ideas if we really want to propel our education results and achieve excellence.”

Friday’s summit kicked off Friday morning with strong cases made for student choice, which were appreciated by some in the audience but attacked by some of the state’s education associations.

LePage opened the conference by relating his own education story, which included learning English beginning at age 13. He said having an educator allow him to take college entrance tests in French changed his life.

“I believe my mission for the rest of my life is to make sure that every Maine student has the same opportunity that I had,” said LePage. “That is my mission. There are two things that drive me. Having every student have the best opportunity for education and secondly to make Maine a very prosperous state. That’s all that drives me.”

The summit, which was announced by LePage in his State of the State address, involved education officials from across the country and was billed by the administration as a sort of brainstorming session on education reform.

The first session focused on the issue of school choice, which the governor has consistently worked to expand in Maine. There were also sessions on educator effectiveness and an afternoon session called “The Florida Story,” which involves three presenters from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The conference ended with Bennett’s keynote presentation.

LePage began taking fire for his summit early Friday morning. Chris Korzen of Maine’s Majority said in a press release that LePage is attempting to dismantle Maine’s public education system.

“The purpose of this conference is to encourage radical education ‘reforms’ in Maine,” reads the press release. “The conference features little involvement from Maine’s public education system, but plenty of input from representatives who stand to benefit financially from these for-profit education reforms.”

Korzen said Maine should not be listening to experts from out of states, particularly Bennett, who Korzen said has failed at education reform in the past.

“We’ve got to start asking ourselves, why are people from Indiana and Florida suddenly interested in changing our schools?” said Korzen. “The answer is simple: they are positioned to profit financially from those reforms.”

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. LePage, said none of the organizations at the summit were for-profit entities.

“They don’t make money off these initiatives,” she said. “This was about ideas and best practices that have worked across the nation.”

Democratic members of the Legislature called the conference a “dog and pony show.”

“Instead of hearing a sales pitch from an out-of-state group that views students as revenue streams, we should be bringing together the best of Maine,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in a press release. “Right now, in schools across the state, innovative programs are being tested that have yet to be brought to every classroom. If the governor is looking for new ideas he should start with what is already working here in Maine.”

During a question-and-answer session moderated by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, two members of the audience tried to shout out questions but were hushed by the commissioner.

“This is not a public hearing, ma’am,” said Bowen at one point.

The conference also featured some impassioned appeals from students, including Mohamad Nur, a sophomore at Deering High School.

“Education can come in different shapes and forms and sizes and you learn from every experience you have,” said Nur. “Students tend to learn more and work harder in classes that they enjoy.”

LePage said after the summit that his immediate goals for education include pushing through initiatives that champion expectations and accountability.

“Let’s look at what we can do to minimize the workload that we put on the districts and challenge them, tell them what we’re expecting for scores, what we’re expecting for results, that we’ll hold them accountable and how we’re going to do that, and that we’ll hold them accountable. … Let them tell us how they’re going to get there. I’m all for that. That was the best message I heard all day.”

One initiative discussed at length Friday was Florida’s success in implementing an A-through-F grading system for schools, similar to the one LePage announced in his State of the State address but which hasn’t yet been implemented. Some of the presenters from Florida said that program was a key to their success in education reform because communities and education officials banded together consistently to improve schools with low grades.

As for implementing school choice in Maine, which LePage attempted but failed at last year, the governor said he won’t come back with another proposal any time soon.

The parents and the students have to get engaged,” said LePage. “I can’t force it. If the Maine people want it they’re going to have to demand it.”

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