August 17, 2013

Bowen steps down as Maine education chief

He leaves Sept. 12 for a national policy post. Gov. LePage's office has no comment on a successor.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

In this 2011 file photo, state education commissioner Steve Bowen. Bowen, a one-time schoolteacher who spearheaded significant education initiatives under the LePage administration but clashed with the governor on occasion, resigned Friday.

Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer

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In this May 2013 file photo, education commissioner Stephen Bowen, surrounded by students, unveils the state's new A-F grading system at the Maine State Library.

Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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