By Bill Nemitz
He loves to rant and rant and rant about what's wrong with Maine schools.
If only Gov. Paul LePage would put the same energy into doing his homework.
"Unfortunately, the governor seems to be more interested in bullying people than really understanding what people are doing," observed Jana LaPoint, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, in an interview Thursday.
LePage caught many in the State House off guard Wednesday when he called a rare news conference to complain that Maine schools are "failing" and that our educators "abuse our children in the classroom by lying to them."
His primary target: the all-volunteer Charter School Commission, which earlier this week denied four of five pending applications for new charter schools -- including two "virtual" online schools pitched by out-of-state, for-profit companies that have spent much of the past year or two cozying up to the LePage administration.
"I'm asking (members of the commission) for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away," snarled LePage. "We don't need you. We need some people with backbones."
Two things worth noting here:
First, as he hits the halfway point of his seemingly endless four-year term, Maine's chief executive has been reduced to telling those who tick him off (an ever-growing segment of Maine's population, mind you) to simply "go away."
Second, if their actions this week are any indication, the seven members of the Charter School Commission have backbones of pure titanium.
LePage's take on this week's denials has about as much substance as the steam coming out of his ears: The Charter School Commission, he claims, caved to lawyers hired by the Maine School Superintendents Association to "intimidate" the commission into putting the brakes on Maine's burgeoning charter school movement.
Now for what really happened.
Each of the five applications, like those for the two charter schools that are up and running and two more that are expected to open in the fall, got an in-depth review from a three-member subcommittee of the commission.
One, the Harpswell Coastal Academy, received initial approval from the review team and the full commission.
Of the four that were denied, three fell short because their proposed governing boards lacked the independence required under state law.
Take the Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, for example.
"In Heartwood's case, the leader of the school is also the leader of the board," noted the subcommittee's report. "In addition, several of the board's staff members are also named as board members."
Talk about built-in job security!
Then there were the two online schools -- the Maine Virtual Academy, proposed by K-12 Inc. of Herndon, Va.; and Maine Connections Academy, proposed by Connections Learning of Baltimore.
In each case, the review committee found that the local board would have little if any control over the school's day-to-day operation. Rather, as Maine Virtual Academy's reviewers found, the board "has delegated all responsibility for daily operations" to the out-of-state corporation.
Goodbye, home rule. Hello, digital education via remote control.
(To appreciate why that's all such a big deal, revisit the Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K-12 and Connections Learning, published Sept. 2. Staff Writer Colin Woodard found that both companies, in addition to shaping much of Maine's fledgling policy on digital education, have fared poorly in studies of how their students in other states perform.)
Finally, we have the Queen City Charter School in Bangor. The Charter School Commission turned thumbs down on its application because, for starters, the proposed operating budget included a three-year, $150,000-per-year federal grant for which the school has yet to even apply.
"The Review Team feels it is not a sound plan to balance a budget on grant funds that have not been awarded and are not in hand," noted the denial.
What, we can only wonder, was Plan B? Lottery tickets?
In short, the Charter School Commission had ample reason to tell the four unsuccessful applicants to go back to the drawing board. And LePage, had he stopped sputtering long enough to do a little homework, might now understand that.
He might also have learned that the commission has met 41 times since late 2011.
And that its members routinely log as many as 40 hours a week poring over thousands of pages of documentation because, as Chairwoman LaPoint put it, "we feel proud of the work we've done. We know we're doing a good job and we want to see it through."
And that for all their effort, the commissioners receive nary a nickel. LaPoint, in fact, doesn't even put in for travel reimbursements.
"I would be more than happy at any time to have sat down with the governor and explain to him where we were, what we've been doing, how it's playing out," said LaPoint. "But I've never been given that opportunity."
Of course she hasn't. That would require LePage to actually listen, maybe do a little reading, maybe reflect on the pure idiocy of calling in the media and telling a duly appointed arm of state government to "please go away."
"We're not going away," promised LaPoint, who (like her fellow members) serves at the pleasure of the Maine Board of Education. "We're excited about our work."
For which all of Maine should be grateful.
During his tantrum on Wednesday -- he actually performed a sequel to make sure the entire State House press corps got his message -- LePage recycled his oft-repeated tale of how he went to parochial school while growing up in hardscrabble Lewiston and has the scarred knuckles to prove it.
I'll bet it had something to do with missing homework.
And that LePage, for all his bluster about the value of a good education, still has a lot to learn.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: