AUGUSTA — The state’s education chief, a one-time schoolteacher who spearheaded significant education initiatives under the LePage administration but clashed with the governor on occasion, resigned Friday.
Stephen Bowen will become director of innovation for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan nationwide association of state commissioners of education that is active in education policy work.
“The offer was not one I took lightly, but ultimately the opportunity to take what is working here in Maine to scale was one I could not refuse.” Bowen wrote in a statement Friday morning. “I am extraordinarily proud of what we have accomplished. Maine is a state the nation is now looking to as a leader in meaningful education reform.”
Bowen said the timing “made this a tough decision,” since there are many state education initiatives still evolving.
“My first reaction was just that — we have a lot of stuff going on. Call me in a year. Call me in two years,” Bowen said. “I looked at the list of things to do and the thing that gave me some comfort was that we have a really strong team here. Things are moving forward.”
Before joining the administration in 2011, Bowen was the education policy analyst for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. Before that, he served two terms in the Legislature. His last day as commissioner is Sept. 12.
Gov. Paul LePage and Bowen enacted several education reforms, many of them similar or modeled on reform legislation enacted in other states led by conservative governors. Among them: starting charter schools, instituting a teacher and administrator evaluation system, issuing A-F report cards for all the state’s schools, and instituting proficiency-based graduation requirements.
The administration failed in efforts to introduce school choice and to allow the use of public funds for religious schools.
“It’s a relatively big deal,” Mark Brewer, a political science professor at University of Maine, said of the resignation. “Bowen seemed to have a pretty important role in the LePage administration, and education arguably has been bigger than any other issue with LePage aside from improving the business climate.”
Bowen, he said, led that effort and “appeared to be very effective” at it.
“His loss is a significant one for Gov. LePage, there’s no way around that,” he said.
The administration has clashed regularly with the teachers unions and Democratic leadership on these reforms. While the initiatives have been signed into law, many are still in the rule-making phase. Details of how the plans will be implemented are being hammered out in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
“We’ve planted some seeds of really good things that are coming,” Bowen said.
Other education experts agreed that there is still much work to be done in developing and executing those plans.
“We will continue to work on all these things he has put in place,” said Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, a member of the education panel. She added that Bowen’s resignation was a “bit of a surprise.”
“I think that Steve Bowen has lofty goals for himself,” she said. “I think he’s very committed to education reform. I don’t agree with all of his reforms, but I have agreed to and supported some of them.”
Bowen also oversaw the department as the state made changes in school funding, including a controversial decision to shift certain teacher retirement costs to local districts.
“As I told the Governor in my letter to him, I firmly believe in the reform work we are doing here in Maine,” Bowen said in the statement.
An acting commissioner will be named in the upcoming weeks, officials said. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration would not comment at this time on a possible successor.
Brewer of UMaine noted that education will likely remain a key issue for the governor as he heads into a re-election campaign in 2014.
“It’s certainly a big issue to his supporters, and it seems like an important issue to him personally. He’s going to hold on to that,” Brewer said.
As for a successor, the next education chief will have to “match up with the governor, policy-wise,” Brewer said. “That’s the one precondition for the job. (LePage) is not interested in people who have differing views from his own.”
“I wish him well,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, Senate chairwoman of the education committee. Bowen was always “collegial” and “tried to work with us the best he could,” she said.
“In the first two years, they (the administration) were very effective in getting through their agenda,” she said. “But obviously when the legislative body shifted control (to Democrats), I think he experienced some frustration in not being able to pursue some of his agenda.”
Bowen acknowledged that the session has been “easily the most frustrating legislative session I’ve ever been a part of,” but said that was the nature of politics and wasn’t related to his decision to leave.
As for a successor, Millett said she hopes for someone willing to work with everyone.
“It would be really great if the next commissioner is not wedded to a particular agenda, a really ideological reform agenda, but someone who comes with a genuine passion for education,” she said. “I suspect that probably Steve had that also, but the governor’s office is not so willing to engage in that. That’s the reality: No matter who they get, they’re going to have to work with the governor’s office.”
During his tenure, Bowen disagreed with the governor on some issues, but that played no role in his decision, he said.
Last fall, LePage considered shutting down Maine’s school laptop program but was persuaded not to by Bowen, according to emails obtained under a public records request.
“He and I have talked about things and there’s times he’s convinced me, and there’s times I’ve convinced him,” Bowen said. “Commissioners disagree with governors, and that’s what governors want. They don’t want a bunch of ‘yes men’ around.”
On Friday, LePage and Bowen both praised the other’s education efforts.
“I am pleased that Steve will be working to implement innovative practices throughout the nation’s educational systems,” LePage said in a statement. “It is encouraging that a national organization committed to educational excellence has recognized (his) passion and dedication for improving schools and student outcomes. We wish him well, and we hope that he can continue to improve Maine’s educational system by introducing best practices from around the country to our state.”
Also Friday, the president of the Maine Education Association said the group was “looking forward to working with the next Commissioner of Education.”
“We hope the new Commissioner will represent Maine public school educators and will be open to meeting with MEA to discuss the best path for public school students. We hope she or he cares about MEA’s mission to lead the way to great public schools for every Maine student,” wrote Lois Kilby-Chesley.
In his new role, Bowen will oversee the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovative Lab Network, which provides support to identify, test and implement student-centered approaches to learning.
“His new position inherently demands a strong commitment to continually seeking improvements to education for all students, something the Commissioner is no stranger to,” the council said in a statement.
Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: