AUGUSTA, Maine — Senate President Justin Alfond’s criticism of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in the Bangor Daily News last week drew a pointed response Wednesday from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who told Alfond, a Democrat, in a letter that “attacking a public charter school that provides choice for Maine students reeks of hypocrisy.”
LePage, who last year called Alfond a “little spoiled brat,” took another swipe at the Senate president’s family wealth in the letter.
“You were fortunate enough to choose from any number of private high schools, and you had the unlimited financial resources necessary to attend Noble and Greenough, an elitist private school in Massachusetts,” wrote LePage. “But you and the school union bosses have been fighting tirelessly to deny Maine students the choice of where they can get the best education. You are putting the politically motivated demands of the union ahead of the best interests of the students. This is wrong. We must put our students first.”
Alfond said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that the governor’s letter represents another instance of turning a policy discussion personal.
“This is an ongoing pattern of behavior from the governor,” said Alfond, who added that he attended public schools in Maine from the second through 10th grades. “When someone disagrees with his policies or politics, the governor’s response is not one that further advances the conversation but instead he personally attacks — often with attacks that are not based in reality. This is disappointing behavior from our state’s highest elected leader.”
On Friday, in response to questions from the BDN, Alfond railed against the school for planning to host a luncheon on school choice that is sponsored by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. That luncheon was Wednesday and according to LePage spokesman Peter Steele, the governor spoke at it.
“I was shocked to learn of the comments by Sen. Alfond earlier this week, attacking Baxter Academy, simply because it provides our kids with another option,” said LePage at the event, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Every Maine child should have the opportunity to a quality education, whether it is a public school, a charter school or a private school.”
Alfond said Baxter Academy, which will open this fall as one of the state’s first five charter schools since a law allowing them passed in 2011, shouldn’t be aligning itself with one of the “most extreme organizations in the state of Maine.”
“They do not look at collaborating or cooperating and working with public schools,” said Alfond. “It’s a very disappointing reality that Baxter is partnering with the Maine Heritage Policy Center. … The agenda for the event is not even close to what the city of Portland and Greater Portland wants to see in a new school, a school that has an opportunity to branch out and become a new community organization. … This lunch is another prime example of them taking a path of not understanding their host community and their host elected officials.”
Carl Stasio, Baxter’s executive director, said on Friday that just because the school chose to host the event doesn’t mean that there is any alignment.
“We have supporters from both ends and the middle of the political spectrum,” said Stasio. “Having someone come and speak at your school certainly doesn’t mean there is some sort of partnership there. Charter schools are new in Maine and shouldn’t be drawn into these political battles.”
The event in question is “Friedman Legacy Day,” an annual national event that honors the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist known for his support of open choice in public schools. The event featured speakers from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, Baxter Academy and the conservative Americans for Prosperity-Maine.
LePage, who has been an ardent supporter of school choice in Maine and has proposed several failed attempts at expanding it, including to religious schools, referenced his own experience after transferring to a parochial school as an example of why students should be able to choose their school.
“The students who choose to attend Baxter cannot afford the world-class education you received at a very expensive boarding school,” wrote LePage. “It is unconscionable that you would deny students the choice of which public school in Maine provides the best education that is tailored to fit their individual needs. Maine students deserve the same opportunities that you and I had to succeed. Educational options were the key to my personal success.”
Alfond said that although he has opposed school choice initiatives, his record as a supporter of public education is strong.
“My time in Augusta has been focused ensuring students in Maine have the strongest and best learning environment,” said Alfond, who served for two terms on the Legislature’s Education Committee. “Whether it’s through teacher training, teacher accountability, bringing innovation into the classroom or supporting proper funding of our public schools, my efforts are based on the idea that every student deserves a good, quality education. A strong education and a good teacher are the foundation for a student’s future success.”