PORTLAND, Maine — Former Maine Republican Gov. John “Jock” McKernan Jr. used his keynote address at a heavily attended education conference Friday to defend the Common Core education standards, which have been under attack recently by some Maine conservatives and parents.

McKernan, who is now the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and former CEO of Education Management Corp., a for-profit college company, was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Educate Maine Pipeline to Prosperity Conference. The event was attended by more than 300 educators from throughout Maine.

“I truly believe the Common Core state standards are a major step forward,” said McKernan. “I believe that it is going to make a huge difference for the 45 states that have adopted these standards.”

The Common Core standards are a set of educational benchmarks designed to ensure that public school students emerge from high school with a common set of knowledge and skills that they need for success in college and careers.

Maine adopted the standards in 2011 under Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

In August, the Maine Equal Right Center announced that it will launch a citizens petition campaign to repeal Maine’s involvement with Common Core. The group’s goal is to put a question on the November 2014 statewide ballot. If the petition is successful, it would be the first of its kind in the United States.

The initiative has the support of some of the more conservative members of the Republican Party, who earlier this year blasted LePage for his support of the standards, as well as Heidi Sampson, a member of the State Board of Education and Maine Charter School Commission who co-founded a group called No Common Core Maine.

Sampson and others contend that Common Core will lead to an erosion of local control in public schools amid an effort to nationalize public education.

“On a daily basis, people are realizing for the first time the significant impact of Common Core and are becoming increasingly concerned,” Sampson said in August.

McKernan echoed proponents of the standards who argue that they will ensure consistency in education systems across the country, improve overall education performance and serve as a tool that will help states see where they need to improve.

“Finally, we’re going to see some comparability on how things are going in schools across the states in our country,” said McKernan. “If we want to address the skills gap in America, it has to start with our K-12 education system.”

McKernan sought to debunk what he called three “myths” about Common Core — that it will “bureaucratize” public education; erode state-level education standards, such as Maine’s Learning Results; and perhaps most seriously, allow government entities to collect individual student data.

“This is a huge red herring,” said McKernan. “Federal law prohibits a federal database with students’ personally identifiable information.”

Closing the skills gap — the notion that employers across numerous sectors can’t find enough qualified workers — was an overarching theme of Friday’s Educate Maine conference, which explored how improving public schools can reap significant improvements for Maine’s economy, standard of living and out-migration of young people.

That will require an overhaul of classroom instruction away from the concept of teaching students all at the same pace to individualizing teaching student-by-student. It’s a concept that has been gaining traction in Maine, as St. John Valley-area SAD 27 Superintendent Tim Doak and University of Maine at Presque Isle President Linda Schott explained during one of the conference’s break-out sessions. Doak said the concept will motivate students to succeed.

“When we show them there’s a link between a career and what they’re doing in school, they’re going to work harder,” said Doak. “If you can make it relevant to them, they’ll work as hard as you want them to work. Maine’s workforce is the future for all of us. Are we preparing our children for that workforce or are they just sitting there every day consuming information, taking notes and having a test next Friday?”


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.