AUGUSTA — A day after the state’s Charter School Commission rejected four out of five applications for new charter schools, Gov. Paul LePage held a rare and impromptu press conference to blast the panel and the state teachers union.
LePage, in a 23-minute press conference held with Department of Education chief Steve Bowen and Republican lawmakers, said that Tuesday’s decision by the commission to reject four applicants was proof that some of the panelists were intimidated by special interest groups like the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Board Association. In addition, LePage said that Maine public schools were “failing” and that the performance may not warrant additional funding in his next two-year budget.
Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the governor’s press conference, which was called immediately after Democratic leadership unveiled its policy priorities for the session, effectively “picked a fight” with every educator in the state.
LePage kicked off his press conference Wednesday saying that Maine Education Association — the state teachers union — “the superintendents, principals, have not been totally honest to our kids,“
“In fact, our school systems are failing,” LePage said.
LePage noted that his last budget included an additional $63 million for state education funding.
“I’m not so sure, with the current economic crisis and the performance of schools, I’m just apt to do that again,” he said.
LePage said the average cost per student in Maine is somewhere “around $15,000,” compared to Florida’s average of $12,000.
There is varying data tracking per-pupil spending.
According to the New America Foundation, a left-leaning public policy group, Maine spent just over $12,000 per K-12 student in 2009, below the Northeast regional average of nearly $15,000.
U.S. Census Bureau numbers from 2009-2010 mostly match that Maine number – ranking the state 14th-highest in per-pupil spending when Washington, D.C., is counted alongside states. The bureau said the national per-pupil average is less than $11,000.
Quality Counts, a project organized by Education Week, reported today that Maine’s per pupil spending was just under $15,000, the seventh highest in the country when including the District of Columbia.
The governor also promised reforms to the charter commission. He said that some members of the board were afraid to do their jobs, citing the threat of lawsuits by school districts.
“And frankly, I think those people, if they’re afraid to do the job, if they can’t put the students first, then they ought to resign,” he said. “And quite frankly, I think we ought to go back to the Legislature and change that structure because that structure’s failing us. It’s run by the status quo and if we stay in status quo, we might drop from 49th to 51st.”
It’s unclear which study the governor is citing for the state’s education ranking. The National Center for Education Statistics, with the U.S. Department of Education, ranked Maine 11th nationally in reading achievement and 13th in math in 2011. The rankings, which put Maine slightly above the national average, was based on student performance in all grades participating in standardized testing.
The 2012 Quality Counts report card for state education efforts gave Maine a C. The grade, which is the same as the national average, was based six factors, including student achievement and teaching administrative performance and accountablity.
The same survey gave Maine a B- for chances of student success. The national average was a C+.
Alfond said the governor’s misquoted several education facts and rankings.
“Being governor doesn’t entitled you to being in a fact-free zone,” Aflond said. “… He did such an injustice to Maine’s students and teachers today that it’s hard to even understand what his purpose was.”
During a second press conference, the governor again criticized the charter commission.
“I am asking them for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away. We don’t need you. We need some people with backbones,” LePage said.
During Monday’s charter commission hearing, the Maine Superintendents Association was ready to challenge an applicant. The association withdrew its challenge after the commission indicated it was going to deny the application.
LePage said the school districts were deploying expensive lawyers to block charter schools.
“The people that are crying that they are getting cuts are the ones hiring the lawyers to fight the charter commission and intimidate the charter commission,” LePage said. “What have we come to? It’s about our kids. It’s not about them.”
LePage said the charter commission represented the status quo, which he said, was “attacking reform efforts.”
Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission, said she resented the governor’s comment that the commission was influenced or intimidated by charter school opponents. She noted that the Maine Superintendents threat of a legal challenge wasn’t made public until Tuesday, well after the commission subcommittees reviewing the applications had recommended to deny the charter proposals on Monday.
“It had nothing to do with any group that was coming before us, absolutely none,” Lapoint said. “I really resent that the governor would think that we would be influenced by any group. The only influences we have are that we do the best job that we can for the children in the state. It is our only goal. We’re not political.”
Lapoint also hit refuted LePage’s claim that the commission was moving too slowly to approve charter schools. The commission has approved two charter schools since it begin reviewing applications in May 2012. It is close to approving two more schools.
“To those who say that it’s working too slowly, I would say that the state of Maine and its people would be very upset with us if we moved any quicker,” Lapoint said.
The charter commission consists of seven members appointed by the Maine State Board of Education. Three of the commission members are directly from the board. The remaining four are selected by the board.
The Board of Education members are appointed by the governor. Four members of the nine-member board were appointed by LePage.
Lapoint noted the charter commission was a volunteer board with members working up to 40 hours a week reviewing 1,000-page applications.
“We had to start from scratch. We have no money. We still don’t,” she said.
Lapoint said she ran into Bowen Wednesday and told him, “thanks for throwing us under the bus.”
She added that she believed Bowen was passionate supporter of charter schools and of the commission.
“The governor has put him in a difficult position,” she said.
As LePage’s press conference continued Wednesday, the governor reiterated his belief that Maine schools are failing.
“Because as soon as Puerto Rico becomes a state, they’re going to beat us because we don’t care about our kids,” he said. “And people say, ‘Oh, we care, we care, we care.’ Well, actions speak louder than words.”
The governor also doubled down on his criticism of the number of school administrators in the state. He said Maine had too many. Maine has 127 superintendents for 186,000 students. LePage compared that number to Florida, which has 57 administrators for 2.7 million students.
The Maine School Superintendents Association has countered that the state’s administrators work more closely with school districts than administrators in other states.
According to the Maine School Management Association, the state has 94 full-time superintendents and 33 part-time superintendents.
LePage said Wednesday he wanted to reduce the number of superintendents to “one per county” or one for each area career or technical school.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci had attempted to reduce the number of school administrators through school district consolidation. However, many rural districts, many in Republican districts, have attempted to unwind those efforts.
LePage initially rose to leave the press conference after his opening remarks. However, he sat back down to answer reporters’ questions and remained there for approximately 15 minutes.
He said he was passionate about education and was determined to make Maine’s system better.
“I came up the rough way, I had to work hard and I had to struggle to get through college and damn it, we’ve got to step up and say our kids deserve better,” he said.
He then made an appeal to the few reporters who were in attendance.
“I ask you all to report this truth for our kids,” he said, pounding the table once. “We need to put our kids first and these people that are retired making a couple thousand dollars, it’s about time we put them out to pasture.”
He added, “This isn’t partisan. It really should not be,” he said. “We’re here to run the schools and we have to provide them the absolute best and right now we’re not.”
LePage was asked if he planned to introduce legislation to reform the charter commission. He said that work was under way before criticizing the current commission.
“A few of them ought not to be on the commission because they can’t do their jobs,” he said. “If they don’t have the backbone to do the job, just resign.”
The governor also said that Maine teachers were underpaid and said that many were using their own money to buy school supplies.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Maine teachers made an average of $48,000 last year. The national average is $56,643.
Bowen, the education commissioner, was also critical of a press conference by the Maine Education Association, a group that Republicans argue is hyper-partisan and favors Democrats.
The MEA was very active during an election that wiped out LePage’s Republican majority in the Legislature. On Tuesday the group held a media event in the State House to protest the governor’s plan to lift the cap on the number of charters schools that the state.
The cap of 10 schools is set to expire in 2022, but LePage wants to lift it now.
The MEA opposes that move, saying it’s too soon to tell if the law is working effectively.
Bowen said the MEA’s State House event was vitriolic.
“We’ve got a ton of work to do; we’ve got to do it together,” Bowen said. “If this is how it’s going to go, it’s going to be a very rough session.”
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the MEA, said the governor’s comments were unfortunate. She also denied that the MEA was blocking charter school or other reform efforts.
“The press conference was not designed to get anybody upset,” said Kilby-Chesley, adding that the event was designed to show lawmakers that the union supported public education.
“It was not a personal attack against anyone,” she said.
Kilby-Chesley also applauded the efforts of the charter commission. She said the panel had been rigorous in its review of the applicants.
Alfond said the governor’s decision to hold the press conference was disappointing.
“Here we are the start of a new session and Mainers spoke very clearly and loudly on Nov. 6,” Alfond said. “They wanted the end of the partisanship and an end to the extreme language, the end of ultimatums.”
State House bureau reporter Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.