March 23, 2013

LePage conference touts school choice, but not all are convinced

The governor's education conference offers an empowering message, but teachers' unions find fault.

By COLIN WOODARD Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Gov. Paul LePage opens his Governor's Conference on Education this morning at Cony High in Augusta.

click image to enlarge

Dr. Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, delivers the keynote speech during the Governor's Conference on Education on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Michelle Zhang, a Cony High School senior, and Stephen Bowen, commissioner of education, listen as Gov. Paul LePage opens the Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Additional Photos Below

Related headlines

Dr. Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, speaks on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

It also exposed the foundation's entanglements with online education companies that stood to benefit from the policies, and the fact that Levesque was a paid lobbyist for many of the companies and received her compensation for leading Bush's foundation through her lobbying firm.

Earlier this month, Levesque pulled her firm's lobbying registrations after Florida media raised questions about the legality of the arrangement. The foundation announced she would become a full-time employee. She will not have to change her business address, however, as the foundation and her firm, Meridian Strategies, share a post office box.

CRITICS: 'UNPROVEN METHODOLOGY'

Teachers' unions and critics believe the Florida model's goal is to privatize public education and enrich companies that would capitalize on the changes. 

"If you're interested in corporations running your schools, if you're interested in losing local control, if you're interested in letting state bureaucrats and corporations make all your decisions, if you're interested in ignoring any expertise your superintendents, teachers and principals have, then have at it," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, that state's primary teachers' union. "It's a great system."

The president of the Maine Education Association, Lois Kilby-Chesley, agreed. "The people who are here, we know their agenda: It's anti-public schools and corporation-driven," she said. "It's not what Maine students need and it's definitely not what Maine parents and the public wants in Maine."

Critics also say Bush and his foundation take credit for education improvements in Florida that may not have been the result of his initiatives.

"They just randomly say that it's because of their reforms, but they don't demonstrate causality," said William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, whose scholars have been critical of Bush's policies.

"Florida also had a constitutional amendment limiting class size and a very massive new reading program that went through at the same time. They don't give any of these proven reforms the credit, but instead some unproven methodology like letter grades" for schools.

REPHRASING THE MESSAGE

Other presenters at the conference were Eric Lerum, vice president of StudentsFirst, founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee; Leslie Hinter, a vice president at the conservative Friedman Institute; foundation staffer Mike Thomas; and the headmaster of Thornton Academy, Rene Menard. Two high school students -- Cony senior Michelle Zhang and Deering sophomore Mohamed Nur -- also gave remarks.

"The fact that we're having an education forum and there are no public educators on the stage, I find that a little disconcerting," Kilby-Chesley said.

Bennett, who was previously education commissioner in Indiana, acknowledged that he lost that job in the last election, and said that it was because of his failure to build strong support for his school-choice agenda.

He advised Maine reformers to change their messaging, replacing the key words "competition," "freedom" and "accountability" with less polarizing alternatives -- "promoting social justice," "leveling the playing field" and creating more "quality schools." 

"Those guiding principles, if spoken right, help you build that coalition of support," Bennett said. "I've spent a little time with Gov. LePage. I believe, in his heart, he wants what is best for every child in Maine. But when he conveys that, he has to win the hearts and minds of every citizen in Maine without splitting the population apart."

LePage has made headlines in recent months for denouncing Maine's public schools as "dismal" and "failing" and asserting that "if you want a good education in Maine, go to private schools." 

In his opening remarks, the governor alluded to his blunt approach. "I don't apologize for being a little rough around the edges because that what happens when you're on the streets," he said, a reference to having run away from an abusive home at age 12. "But I will tell you this, it comes from the right place. It comes from wanting to make sure that every student gets it and that we provide it."

Allen, of the Center for Charter School Reform, and the Friedman Institute's Hinter said that expanding charter schools and offering vouchers might drain resources from public schools in the short term, but this would encourage teachers and administrators to make improvements.

"In the end, money does flow with the kid," said Allen. "Schools will have to adjust." 

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Dr. Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, delivers the keynote speech during the Governor's Conference on Education on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, speaks during Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday March 22, 2013 at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, speaks during Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, standing right, speaks during Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

  


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)