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Market-Driven Reforms Focus of Maine Gov's Education Conference
03/22/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Gov. Paul LePage brought education policymakers, and foundations from Florida and Indiana, to an Augusta high school Friday to talk school reform. The decision to highlight those two states at the Governor's Conference on Education was very much a strategic one for LePage and his advisers. Florida and Indiana have already implemented controversial reforms like school choice, tougher teacher evaluation and charter schools. LePage, a Republican, believes pursuing these policies in Maine will prepare more kids for college or work. But Democrats say the governor wants to give out-of-state, for-profit interests undue influence over the state's public schools. Jay Field reports.

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On education, Paul LePage sees himself as a sort of warrior, fighting an outdated, sprawling bureaucracy of unions, professional organizations and their Democratic allies in the Legislature. This three-headed beast, LePage often laments in his own unique way, will attack anything that threatens the status quo inside Maine's schools.

So it's no surprise that LePage turned to a veteran of such fights, Tony Bennett, to keynote his conference. Bennett, who's been both a classroom teacher and school administrator, is commissioner of Florida's Education Department.

"I am going to talk to you from the heart," he said. "I went through some pretty tough times last year. I faced some pretty tough audiences. And I will tell you, point blank, what happened in Indiana regarding an election."

Before he ended up in Florida, Bennett was the popularly-elected superintendent of public instruction in Indiana. In 2009, shortly after he took office, he began pursuing a series of aggressive, market-driven education reforms. Bennett backed merit pay, tougher teacher evaluations, a new third-grade reading test, a letter grading system for schools and the largest school voucher program in the nation.

"I was an enigma, an anomoly in my profession, in that I believed in these reforms as a public school administrator," he said. "Many of my colleagues couldn't understand that."

And many voters, it turns out, couldn't either. Bennett lost his bid for re-election last November after one term, as a ground swell of opposition from rank and file teachers in Indiana led to his defeat at the polls. Maine Gov. Paul LePage and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, face an uphill battle as they push for some of these same reforms in Maine.

To LePage, Bowen and the rest of the conservative-leaning audience at Friday's summit, Bennett's story is heroic. Opponents of the LePage's agenda, not surprisingly, took a different view of Bennett's talk and the conference as a whole.

"There was no public school educator, no administrator, no public school educator on any of the panels," says Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. Kilby-Chesley worries about the influence that private interests, far from Maine, are trying to wield over the state's schools.

In 2011, the American Legislative Exchange Council - or ALEC - adopted Indiana's reform package as model education legislation. ALEC is an association of conservative-minded lawmakers and policy analysts who help write model, free-market-oriented legislation for lawmakers in state capitols across the nation.

"When we see what has come forth in the last two and half years in Maine, many of the things come from ALEC," Kilby-Chesley says.

Maine taxpayers, says Kilbey-Chesley, don't want to hand over control of public schools to for-profit companies in other states with dubious track records. Last year, an investigation by the Portland Press Herald revealed that Stephen Bowen was consulting with another participant in Friday's conference, the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, on proposals to create taxpayer-funded virtual schools in Maine.

Other reform's passed last year in Maine, including an overhaul of teacher evaluation in the state, closely resemble model legislation drafted by ALEC. But Gov. LePage defends the approach his administration is taking to reform. "I want every kid in Maine to have the same shot I had in life. And that's not happening."

In the coming months, the governor says his administration will be drafting more legislation that would hold schools and local districts even more accountable for their academic performance.


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