SOUTH PORTLAND – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell said Thursday that the state must expand pre-kindergarten to every school district and offer grants to help high school seniors attend college.

Mitchell, one of five candidates for the state’s top job, outlined her vision for education in Maine at a press conference held in a Southern Maine Community College classroom. The former teacher, who has the endorsement of the Maine Education Association, said she also wants to expand the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program — which targets students at risk of dropping out of high school — and establish learning benchmarks for public school students.

To pay for her proposals, she wants the state to renegotiate its contract for liquor distribution, which she said would generate an “adequate number of millions” of dollars. She said she did not want to give specific numbers before negotiations begin.

“It’s a very valuable asset that we have to negotiate responsibly,” she said. “There was discussion about doing this in the past. Everyone was so afraid that it would simply be used to close a gaping budget hole. I don’t want it to fall in a gaping budget hole.”

In 2004, the state leased liquor distribution to a new company, Maine Beverage Co., for an upfront payment of $125 million and a share of annual revenues for 10 years. The contract expires in 2014.

For the most part, Mitchell’s opponents criticized her proposals.

“No one in the state of Maine has done more to block the reform of public education than Libby Mitchell,” said independent Eliot Cutler. “Selling the liquor business, like a form of stimulus, is just kicking the can down the road again.”

Cutler, who unveiled his education proposal last week, has proposed allowing charter schools, instituting merit pay for teachers and a longer school year, and merging the community college and university systems.

Brent Littlefield, spokesman for Republican candidate Paul LePage, said Mitchell had her chance to improve education while in the Legislature.

“Libby Mitchell has had decades in Augusta to implement her plans, and a one-page sheet with new proposals does not replace decades of misplaced spending priorities,” he said.

Littlefield said LePage — who has said he supports charter schools and school vouchers — will soon roll out his own comprehensive plan for the state.

Independent Shawn Moody complimented Mitchell, calling her ideas “good, solid, sound suggestions.”

A call to independent Kevin Scott of Andover was not returned.

The press conference drew several Mitchell supporters. While answering questions from the media, Mitchell was asked about a poll released Wednesday that showed LePage leading her, 43 percent to 29 percent.

“I think people in Maine and all over the country are angry and they’re frustrated and I understand that,” she said. “Maine did not cause the national recession. Maine is well positioned to come out of it if we stop dividing one another and if we start pulling together. I’m a uniter, not a divider.”

She said while polls are interesting to the “press and insiders,” many Maine voters haven’t yet decided who they will support on Nov. 2.

“Maine people do have lives to live in the summer,” she said. “I think they are just going to start understanding the differences. I believe when they go to the polls they will find that I speak for more Maine people.”

Former Democratic rival Steve Rowe, who finished second to Mitchell in the June Democratic primary, served as a co-chairman of a subcommittee that helped shape her education proposals.

“Libby’s plan involves a comprehensive strategy,” Rowe said. “It addresses the challenges throughout the system, not just in one place or in one particular level. Importantly, it doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Mitchell said expanding pre-kindergarten will help catch learning problems earlier and save money down the road. Mitchell said 99 of 218 school districts offer early childhood services, but she wants it in all districts.

“Too many children in our state require special education, remedial services,” she said. “That’s 15 percent of the spending on our schools.”

She said 20 percent of students do not graduate from high school on time, a number she believes can be lowered by expanding the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program, which is supported by donations from Maine businesses.

And, she said, it’s alarming that the proportion of people aged 25-64 with at least an associate degree is lower than in “any preceding generation.”

“That’s not going to work,” she said. “You’ve seen the charts. Your income and level of education has a frightening parallel.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com