PORTLAND — Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler sharpened his criticism of Democrat Libby Mitchell on Tuesday, saying that she and the Maine Education Association have formed an “unholy alliance” to preserve the status quo and oppose education reform.

“Locked arm and arm, Libby and the teachers union have been standing at the schoolhouse door blocking education reform in Maine,” he said at a press conference near King Middle School in Portland.

As a result, Maine taxpayers aren’t getting value for the money they are paying for education, he said. Although net spending per student in Maine is 8 percent higher than the national average, one-half to two-thirds of Maine’s elementary and middle school students don’t meet national standards in reading and math, he said.

Cutler offered up some reform measures that he has talked about during his campaign: adding 10 days to the school year, increasing class sizes, providing merit pay to the best teachers, and allowing charter schools. The difference on Tuesday was his rhetoric.

Just three weeks before Election Day, Cutler used more aggressive language to contrast his education polices with Mitchell’s.

The Democrat from Vassalboro, who has served as Maine’s Senate president and House speaker, has been endorsed by the Maine Education Association. The union represents more than 25,000 members, including teachers in every school district in the state.

Mitchell’s spokesman, David Loughran, said Mitchell has always been a champion of education. In the last legislative session, he noted, she helped pass emergency legislation enabling school districts to establish innovative schools to meet requirements of the federal Race to the Top Assessment Program. The measure does not allow charter schools, which Cutler favors.

Cutler noted that Maine finished 33rd out of 36 states that competed for the federal money, highlighting the need for major reform.

According to the competition’s scorecard, Maine fared poorly because it doesn’t allow charter schools, doesn’t tie teachers’ and principals’ pay to students’ academic performance, and doesn’t make much use of alternative certification paths for teachers.

Because of its scores, Maine lost the chance to win as much as $75 million in federal money to support education reform.

Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association, said recent academic studies have shown that some of Cutler’s ideas, such as providing merit pay and creating charter schools, do not boost students’ achievement.

“Eliot is painting a very broad brush without detailed knowledge of the studies that have been done on school reform initiatives around the country,” he said.

He said the union supports a longer school year as long as teachers are compensated. An effort in the Legislature a few years ago to lengthen the school year was defeated, he said, and the obstacle wasn’t the teachers union or Democrats. Rather, it was small businesses, which didn’t want to lose their summer work force.

Cutler was joined at his press conference by several prominent educators, including Dick Barnes, a former dean of education at the University of Southern Maine; Eve Bither, a former Maine education commissioner, and Weston Bonney, a former member of the state Board of Education.

Barnes said the state needs a governor like Cutler.

“He’s the kind of leader who can make the tough decisions we need to make but not do them in a negative way,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com