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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Bennett would not comment on LePage's apparent belief that Bowen had been influenced by certain staffers, citing personnel concerns. She said LePage was disappointed with the legislative session, but not with Bowen.

"Not reaching those achievements were not the result of a lack of effort," Bennett said.


It may be difficult to find an education chief whose policy views align as closely with LePage's as Bowen's did.

LePage and his now-departed education chief were sometimes at odds on policy execution. But they shared the same goals, not to mention an affinity for political combat.

In June 2012, LePage issued a sharply worded statement to the state commission that approves charter schools. James Banks, the former head of the commission, had publicly complained that the panel was being rushed to approve the publicly funded charters. LePage urged the independent commission to do its work -- quickly -- or resign.

"Resignations encourages (sic) in the second sentence!" Bowen wrote in a June 2012 email to LePage's senior staff, which had circulated a draft of the media statement. "I love working for this governor!"

The 44-year-old Bowen had a feisty reputation before becoming LePage's education policy adviser, a spot he briefly held before the governor appointed him commissioner. The former teacher and state legislator had urged education reforms for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group that continues to influence LePage's educational, economic and health care policies.

Bowen was brash and outspoken at the policy center, known for writing searing blog posts and newspaper opinion pieces about deficiencies in Maine's education system and the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union. Bowen viewed the union, an influential organization aligned with the Democratic Party, as an enemy of change.

Bowen's views didn't change when he became commissioner. His emails to LePage staffers are peppered with references to "blasting" the union, "slapping them around."

In late May 2012, LePage vetoed a bill that would have allowed public school teachers to earn additional pay if they received a national certification. The governor criticized the union in his veto message. He seemingly mocked the bill's supporters, drawing a smiley face near his signature.

"Ouch, that's going to leave a mark," Bowen wrote in response. "Never seen a veto message like that!!"


The hostilities are mutual. The union is one of the most vocal opponents of the LePage administration. In 2012, the union and the National Education Association were among the top spenders in an election that toppled the Republican majority in the Legislature. The union's political action committee ran ads against LePage and his education policy, equating Maine's 2011 charter school bill to selling student education to corporate interests.

Last year the union obtained more than 1,000 pages of Bowen's emails and memos through a Freedom of Access Act request. It has since shared the documents with the Portland Press Herald and other news organizations.

Over the past several months, the documents have trickled into public view through news reports. A Press Herald report published in May documented how the governor initially planned to scrap the state's school laptop program, a decision Bowen advised against. Another showed how LePage wanted to give Miss Maine USA a job promoting career and technical education at high schools, an idea that Bowen famously called "nuts."

There are other moments when Bowen offered contrarian views, or steered the administration from trouble. In early 2012, the governor made a concerted effort to authorize charter schools. Bowen supported the mission but warned that some of the proposals may be "half-baked" and that the newly minted charter commission was just getting organized.

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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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