WELLS, Maine — The Maine Education Association attacked Gov. Paul LePage Friday over comments he made that morning suggesting a private school education is superior to that at a public school.

LePage’s spokeswoman said the governor’s comments were taken out of context by the MEA, who she said ignored LePage’s overall message that his initiatives are meant to improve Maine schools that badly need it.

Speaking at York County Community College during an “Eggs ‘n Issues” discussion Friday morning, LePage covered several topics before arriving at school choice, according to a recording of the comments provided by the MEA. LePage said there was a school in Maine, which he wouldn’t name because it’s “embarrassing,” where only 23 percent of graduates are proficient in English and math.

“The best public high schools in the state are around 60 percent,” he said. “If you want a good education in Maine, and I get criticized by my opponents because I’m hard on education, but if you want a good education go to an academy. If you want a good education go to private schools. 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.”

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said in a press release late Friday afternoon that “the governor should be ashamed of himself.”

“We have no throw-away kids in Maine,” she said. “The governor should not be saying tough luck to our Maine students.”

LePage has previously come under fire for his public criticisms of Maine’s public schools. At a July 25 press conference in Augusta, LePage described Maine’s education system as “failing,” “dismal” and “stagnant,” and said Maine students are looked down upon when they go to other states for school or work.

The MEA has been an outspoken critic of the LePage administration’s efforts to create school choice for Maine students through the creation of charter schools and other initiatives.

“It is clear the governor continues to lie about Maine students in order to continue to push his and Commissioner [Stephen] Bowen’s agenda to privatize schools,” said Kilby-Chesley. “That would only give taxpayer dollars to for-profit, out-of-state corporations. Public schools belong in our communities and should be overseen by taxpayers, not by corporations.”

Bennett said the governor’s message is that school choice in Maine is what’s best for students and said LePage’s criticisms of the state’s education system is borne from test data that shows at some schools only a minority of students are able to achieve proficiency in reading and math. She said LePage’s point is that a student should have a chance to go to a school that scores better if he or she chooses.

“It’s very disappointing to see the MEA taking what the governor said out of context,” said Bennett. “Did the governor say some of those quotes? He did. However, he was emphasizing the importance of allowing parents and students multiple avenues to achieve success. Those are the quotes that the MEA left out. … The MEA can put their spin on, that he’s trashing public schools, but clearly what he has tried to do is to improve our public school system by allowing students and parents and communities multiple options.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.