If you were troubled by reading how out-of-state businesses benefit by influencing the development of online education policy in Maine, look out.

The defense of these relationships by Maine officials is even worse.

On Sept. 2, Maine Sunday Telegram staff writer Colin Woodard wrote a meaty account of how companies like K12 Inc. that sell online learning products fund former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education.

That group lobbies states like Maine to pass laws that would require the taxpayers to buy the kind of products that are sold by K12.

Woodard’s review of the documents showed that they were welcomed enthusiastically by Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who after a foundation-paid trip to a conference in California fretted that he did not have the “political staff” to “move this stuff through the process” in an email to the foundation’s top lobbyist. Turns out, that’s not a problem.

Bowen was given model policies and legislation that were delivered to the Legislature. One sheet was modified slightly, signed by Gov. Paul LePage and issued as an executive order adopting the foundation’s “10 elements of high quality digital learning” as the framework for Maine’s strategic plan.

It looks like K12 Inc. has some good friends in Augusta and that should pay off when it’s time to spend taxpayer money on online learning products.

After the story was published, the administration hit back quickly and with its biggest guns.

LePage himself made the story a subject of his Sept. 7 weekly radio address, and not surprisingly, his weapon was a meat ax.

He latched onto a single detail that he said was false. A reference to a 2010 contribution from K12 Inc. to the Republican Governors Association Maine PAC that spent on behalf of LePage’s candidacy was shortened to say the PAC gave to his campaign.

For the governor, that meant game over. “(T)he newspaper lied saying that my campaign was paid by an out-of-state company to push virtual learning. This is a bold face lie.”

That is the kind of overstatement you’d expect from the governor, but what he didn’t say is even more interesting. LePage’s defense doesn’t address the story’s most telling detail – the executive order that he put his name on.

This wasn’t some proclamation declaring that June is Pertussis Month or one that welcomed the Eastern Maine Bird Watching League to the State House.

This was a major piece of public policy that he outsourced to forces closely aligned with companies that stand to make millions from its implementation.

The “10 pillars” endorsed in the order would make digital learning an element of a high-quality public education to which all students are entitled (at state expense), and would remove most impediments from out-of-state vendors delivering these classes here. No “artificial caps” like a budget could get in the way.

Bowen’s choice of weapon was the stiletto.

In a Maine Voices column published Sept. 9, the commissioner chuckled at the newspaper’s naivete.
“Mr. Woodard made the evidently shocking discovery that sometimes state policymakers, such as state legislators, for instance, seek the assistance of outside experts when developing policy and legislation.”

Sorry. Most of us aren’t leaders of a major state government agency with policy experts on the payroll. And since most of us never worked for think tanks, like the commissioner once did, we may not understand how laws are really made in a democracy.

Maybe he can enlighten us. What other “stuff” has he moved “through the process” on behalf of interested parties?

How many of those proposals are now law, and who’s getting paid?

And how many executive orders has the governor signed that were not written by his policy or legal staff, and who is benefiting?

But, Bowen tells us, none of that matters.

“Good ideas are good ideas, no matter who comes up with them or why,” he wrote. “Let’s stop debating the value of ideas based on who they came from, and instead focus our time and effort on whether they are the best ideas for helping students succeed in school and in life. That is what really matters.”

He’s right, student success does matter. But I still want to know who came up with the ideas and I especially want to know why.

I’m not shocked to learn these officials have a soft spot for out-of-state corporate interests, but I am a little surprised they are so proud of it.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]