Maine education commissioner resigns to take national post

Posted Aug. 16, 2013, at 10:51 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 16, 2013, at 4:09 p.m.

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Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a conference in Augusta in 2011.
Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a conference in Augusta in 2011. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen announced Friday that he will resign effective Sept. 12 to take a job with the national Council of Chief State School Officers, according to a statement from Gov. Paul LePage.

Bowen, who was appointed by LePage in March 2011, has been at the center of the governor’s ambitious and sometimes controversial education reform agenda, though even some of his most virulent policy opponents said he did his job with grace.

“Although many of Commissioner Bowen’s initiatives and proposals were misguided and unproductive, he is an intelligent and committed public servant who worked well with members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, co-chairwoman of that committee. “I wish him well. It is my hope that we can use this opportunity to find an education commissioner who is committed to strengthening Maine’s public schools.”

Starting next month, Bowen will be the organization’s strategic initiative director of innovation and oversee its Innovation Lab Network. That means he’ll travel the country to collect and share education reform initiatives.

“This is not a step I take lightly,” wrote Bowen in his resignation letter. “I firmly believe in the reform work we are doing here in Maine and I am confident that the reforms we have advanced, both in terms of education policy and in terms of how the Department of Education does its work to support schools and students, will lead to improved student outcomes.”

Bowen told the Bangor Daily News on Friday afternoon that he told members of the administration of his impending departure on Wednesday and met personally with LePage on Friday morning.

“He suggested it was going to be a tough loss for the team but he wished me well,” said Bowen. “I told him that opportunities like this, they don’t come along that often and you’ve got to take advantage of them when they come.”

Bowen, a former state legislator and LePage transition team adviser who lives in Rockport, will be based in Maine for his new position but will travel throughout the U.S. on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Bowen has led a range of education reforms under LePage, including the passage of Maine’s first-ever law allowing charter schools, an A-through-F public school grading system, a proficiency-based diploma that ensures high school students will be college or career ready upon graduation and a system of teacher and school administrator accountability, among others.

Under Bowen, the Maine Department of Education was also successful recently in securing a flexibility agreement with the U.S. Department of Education around the former No Child Left Behind Act. The agreement allows struggling Maine schools to implement improvement measures without having to meet the stringent NCLB requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Bowen said the Council of Chief State School Officers has been involved in Maine education policy for years and contributed significantly to the state’s NCLB waiver application. The council also has other Maine connections: Former Education Commission Susan Gendron, who served under Gov. John Baldacci, is listed as a consultant for the organization. A close LePage ally, recently ousted Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who delivered the keynote address at an education reform conference hosted by LePage in March, serves on the organization’s board. Bowen said Bennett was not involved in his hiring.

But not everything Bowen championed became law, such as efforts to create open school choice in Maine, a bid to lift the 10-school cap on the number of charter schools that can be created within the next decade and an initiative to route some public funding to religious school.

“I think this commissioner really did try to improve public education,” said Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, a member of the Education Committee, in a written statement. “We parted ways on how to do that at times. I’m not in favor of using public funds for religious schools, for instance. I hope the governor will be very thoughtful as he considers Commissioner Bowen’s replacement. We spend a lot of tax dollars on our public education system and owe it to our students, communities, taxpayers and businesses to have a first-class education system in the state of Maine.”

LePage, who has long made similar statements of his own, said in a prepared statement that Bowen will be missed.

“I am pleased that Steve will be working to implement innovative practices throughout the nation’s educational systems,” said LePage. “It is encouraging that a national organization committed to educational excellence has recognized Commissioner’s Bowen passion and dedication for improving schools and student outcomes. We wish him well, and we hope that he can continue to improve Maine’s educational system by introducing best practices from around the country to our state.”

The administration will name an acting commissioner in the coming weeks as Bowen works with other DOE officials to ensure a smooth transition. Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, would not speculate on the governor’s timeline, nor whether the fact that LePage’s first term in office ends with next year’s election would complicate the search.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, has often found herself opposed to Bowen on policy initiatives, but said he carried out those debates with respect and dignity.

“I think he has done an excellent job carrying out the governor’s policies,” she said. “He’s very articulate in explaining those policies. It’s work that he believes in and I always found him to be a complete gentleman. He would disagree with you respectfully, but it never became personal.”

Brown said that if Bowen had any weaknesses at the time of his hiring — he was an education policy analyst for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center — it was that he had no administrative experience and had not been a superintendent. Bowen acknowledged that and said it was one of the chief challenges of his tenure.

“I came into this job not directly from being a legislator, but as a policy wonk,” said Bowen. “Coming to this job from that perspective meant that I probably led with policy and didn’t think carefully enough about the implementation side until afterwards. There were some bumps in the road that could have been avoided.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers is a nationwide, nonpartisan and nonprofit membership organization that helps education chiefs in all states implement reforms that prepare students for life after public school.

Chris Minnich, the organization’s executive director, said he was “thrilled” that Bowen took the job.

“States across the country are focused on ensuring all students graduate from high school ready for college and career,” he said in a prepared statement. “They recognize in order to achieve this goal they need to provide innovative solutions to traditional problems and rethink how best to deliver education today. Steve has led Maine in developing some of the most innovative education practices in the country and we look forward to bringing his experience and leadership to the national level.”

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