September 30, 2013

For LePage's departed education chief, reform was a rocky road

Stephen Bowen, who has quit, had similar ideology, but memos show inner turmoil over slow progress.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

Former education chief Stephen Bowen arrived at the State House in 2011 with the same sense of purpose as his boss, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Shot like a cannon from the Republican wave election in 2010, both moved with alacrity to introduce a slew of education reforms.

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Then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen listens in May as he and Gov. Paul LePage unveil the state’s new A-F grading system for schools at the Maine State Library.

Joe Phelan/2013 Kennebec Journal photo

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Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, left, and Gov. Paul LePage unveil the state's new A-F grading system on May 1 at the Maine State Library.

Staff File Photo

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Read Stephen Bowen's emails about education reform

But for all their ideological agreement, there was a divergence in style, and ultimately, political trajectory.

Bowen resigned his post Sept. 12, departing for a national education policy group. He left lauding LePage for supporting an aggressive reform agenda. But at one point in 2012, LePage questioned whether Bowen was pushing that agenda forcefully enough, or if he had fallen under the influence of Department of Education staffers held over from the previous Democratic administration.

Likewise, Bowen sometimes struggled to manage LePage's high expectations, some of which clashed with a political reality the governor seemed unwilling to accept: Lawmakers, including many Republicans, would not support some of his more controversial initiatives.

More than 500 pages of memos and emails obtained by the Maine Education Association help shed light on Bowen's tenure as education commissioner. The documents foreshadow the task that awaits the state's next education chief, who, if the past 2½ years are a prologue, will play a prominent role in the administration.

The documents also reveal more about LePage. The governor's unconventional, headlong style is championed by supporters. But at times, staff and political appointees seem to struggle in directing an unyielding chief executive who knows what he wants but is dismissive of the legislative process required to get it.

Bowen, now director of innovation for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan nationwide association of state education commissioners, discouraged interpreting the documents as a rift between him and LePage. He did, however, acknowledge that he and the governor had their differences.

"I suspect that if you had all the emails between (former education chief) Susan Gendron and whoever was directing education policy for (former Gov. John) Baldacci, you'd see a lot of the same thing," he said. "I think my relationship with Gov. LePage wasn't much different. Sometimes I convinced him, sometimes he convinced me."

In the spring of 2012, Bowen found himself trying to convince LePage in a memo that he was loyal to the cause. The legislative session had just ended. LePage had suffered two significant policy defeats -- a school choice bill and another that would have diverted public dollars to religious schools -- despite Republican control of the Legislature.

Bowen ended the memo by addressing the concerns of LePage, relayed through his chief of staff, John McGough, that little had been accomplished. He also responded to the suggestion that a lack of staff turnover at the Department of Education indicated that Bowen had become too cozy with his staff and that he was reluctant to engage in a "shake-up" like the one by Commissioner Mary Mayhew in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bowen acknowledged that he hadn't rid the department of as many people as Mayhew, but said he had quietly "fired or forced out" two senior staffers. Unlike Mayhew, he had only a few political appointees to jettison.

"I do have a very effective team over there that likes the direction we are going in," Bowen wrote.

In an interview, Bowen declined to comment on the memo, saying it was difficult to recall the context in which it was written.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said it was inevitable that a change in administration would yield changes in agency staff. She said LePage had sought a "culture change" in all of state government, but there was room for different points of view.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Gov. Paul LePage and then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, shown following instructions on whitewater rafting, were paddling in the same direction on education system reforms but hit a few rough rapids along the way.

David Leaming/2013 Morning Sentinel file


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