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Maine's Education Commissioner Leaving Post
08/16/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Gov. Paul LePage's point person on education is stepping down. Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen will leave his post in early September to become the director of innovation with a national non-profit, the Council of Chief State School Officers. During his tenure, Bowen often found himself in the political crossfire over the more controversial elements of the governor's education reform agenda. In his new job, Bowen will be tasked with pushing the same kind of policies at the national level.

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Steve Bowen is not a strident guy. He's measured. He listens. And when he speaks about education policy, he speaks thoughtfully. Those interpersonal skills, though, were consistently put to the test while carrying out the education agenda of his boss, Gov. Paul LePage, who has been openly critical of public school teachers and administrators.

The political conflict grew especially heated this spring, when LePage rolled out his A-through-F school grading system. There's also been pitched debate over the vetting of Maine's initial charter school proposals.

"We moved fast," Bowen says. "I mean, you know, the charter commission was named and put to the task right away. And we had pretty aggressive timetables."

In an interview with MPBN, Bowen says it might have made sense to move a bit more deliberately at first. "Brought in, maybe, some folks from out of state, who had done this in other states and had them spend some time with us to walk us through how to do that. I mean, we probably could have done those things."

But Bowen follows this bit of second guessing with a story: Three weeks ago, he was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony for the state's first licensed charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Goodwill Hinckley. Bowen told students he remembered when having a natural resources-based school for at-risk kids was just an idea.

"And here I was three weeks ago, standing there, watching these kids get diplomas who had dropped out of school, had been asked to leave school, had been expelled from school," he says.

Bowen played an instrumental role in shepherding a charter school law through the Maine Legislature, after years of failed attempts.

It's just one of several education reforms that passed during his tenure. Last year, with Republicans in control in Augusta, lawmakers approved an overhaul that will require districts to come up with teacher and principal evaluation systems that take student achievement into account.

At Bowen and LePage's prodding, legislators passed a measure to move Maine to a proficiency-based high school diploma. And just this month, the state got final approval for its No Child Left Behind waiver from the federal government.

"We disagreed on a number of occasions on policy and implementation," says state Sen. Rebecca Millett, a Cape Elizabeth Democrat, who co-chairs the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Millett and other Democrats condemned Bowen and Gov. LePage for giving schools letter grades, and offered their own, alternative system. Millett and her colleagues also led efforts to defeat a proposal to give kids public tuition dollars to attend religious schools. And they fought to get millions of education dollars restored to the bipartisan budget that passed back in June.

But Millett says their disagreements with Bowen were never mean-spirited or personal. "In the conversations that I had with him, his passion was clear," she says. "I could tell that his was genuine, his desire to improve things for our kids."

In his new job, Bowen will be asked to work with other states to help them make some of the changes he's helped to bring about in Maine. Chris Minnich is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Maine has been, really, a nationwide leader in going at, a, digital learning, and, b, also some of the legislative work they have done, in terms of proficiency based diplomas," Minnich says. "So we thought he would be a perfect fit to lead this work beyond Maine."

An acting commissioner is expected to be named in the coming weeks, and Bowen says he'll be working with some of his deputies to map out a transition plan for department. In a statement, Gov. LePage wished Bowen well in his new job. His last day as Maine's education commissioner is Sept. 12.


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