AUGUSTA, Maine — Stephen Bowen spent the past two years as the public face of Gov. Paul LePage’s ambitious, controversial and often divisive education reform agenda, but he said on his last day in LePage’s administration Thursday that his best work was done behind the scenes.
Not long after Bowen became Maine’s education commissioner in 2011, a superintendent congratulated him for running the “Department of Environmental Protection.”
“I said, ‘What does that mean?’” said Bowen on Thursday, hours before ending his tenure as commissioner to take a job with a federal education think tank. “He said, ‘Well, you’re running a regulatory agency.’”
That rankled Bowen, who believes the DOE should help schools when they ask for it, not dictate and lord over everything they do.
“Once upon a time, the DOE was like a cooperative extension service,” he said. “You had a staff here that could do some high-level support to schools. Unfortunately we don’t have that capacity anymore. When I came to this job there was a sense that the agency had a regulatory mindset, but we’ve tried to think about that and we’ve tried to address it.”
Under LePage, for whom education reform is a priority, Bowen has found himself championing some of the most controversial initiatives that Maine’s education sector has seen in recent memory. Bowen oversaw the implementation of the state’s first charter school law, a divisive A-through-F grading system for public schools and flat funding proposals for schools across Maine. He was the public face for failed attempts by the LePage administration to route taxpayer money to religious schools, require public schools to pay for remedial courses their students need in college and implement open school choice for students, including using local taxpayer dollars for transportation and tuition.
But it was the day-to-day mundane work — not the high-profile initiatives — that Bowen counts as his greatest triumphs.
“When I think of when are the instances where I’m really happy with the work that we’ve done, it’s when I get an email from a superintendent I know who says, ‘I had a question today and I called up the DOE and somebody got right back to me. I didn’t get a runaround. I got an answer.’ … That’s not sexy. It doesn’t create news. Nobody does press conferences in the Hall of Flags, but that’s the work that at the end of the day is important in terms of what work we do to help support schools. … I can’t tell you how much that means to me when the folks you’re here to serve say you’ve become a more responsive state agency.”
Bowen found himself standing next to LePage during a memorable July 2012 press conference when the governor’s criticisms of public schools was brutal. LePage referred to them as “failing,” “dismal” and “stagnant,” and said that Maine students are “looked down upon” when they go to other states for work or college.
Bowen said Thursday that his job isn’t to agree or disagree with the governor, but rather to respond to his directives.
“The governor tells it like it is and he is blunt — he would tell you that,” said Bowen. “His job is to make the case for change and our jobs as people running these agencies is to say, ‘Here’s what the policy solutions are.’”
Bowen has drawn criticism for his own blunt language, particularly in emails that have been circulated to reporters by the Maine Education Association, which obtained them through the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
In December 2011, LePage wanted to hire the then-Miss Maine to promote career and technical education in public schools.
“Well, I can’t let that happen,” Bowen wrote in an email. “I’m not going to be the one sitting in front of Appropriations defending hiring Miss Maine while we cut subsidy to schools and fend off complaints that we always seem to have money squirreled away somewhere when we need it.”
Bowen also has been critical of the Maine Education Association, the largest teachers union in Maine, which wields its influence regularly in policy debates. Bowen’s criticism of the MEA continued Thursday. He said his staff worked with the MEA to conceptualize a teacher and principal evaluation process that passed through the Legislature in 2012, but that the MEA and other organizations became harder to deal with earlier this year when it came to implementing it.
“They’ve got a very different kind of tone and I would argue the organization has probably become more radicalized under its new leadership,” said Bowen. “It was more of a struggle this session to try and work with them than it had been before.”
Bowen, who resigned his position to take a job with the national Council of Chief State School Officers, has been hailed for his work, even by some of his most virulent opponents.
“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, last month.
Bowen said his time as commissioner has been the most challenging of his career and that he looks forward to getting out of the political realm.
“I’m taking a break from politics, that’s for sure,” said Bowen. “I’m not running for anything and I’m not going to be appointed for anything.”
The Department of Education has yet to name an acting commissioner of education, but department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said that will happen very soon. She said state law requires that Bowen’s interim replacement come from within the department. If LePage nominates a permanent successor to Bowen, that person would require confirmation by the Senate.
An earlier version of this story requires correction. State statue requires that an interim replacement for departed Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen come from within the Department of Education.