October 25, 2013

Two sides of LePage: He sometimes offends, but his focus is unwavering

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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Gov. Paul LePage has emerged as an anti-politician with his disdain for the sometime necessary tact required of political leaders.

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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In the past, the theme that ran through many of the policies from governors and the Legislature might be best summed up in a favorite term from their tenures: “protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

While conservatives like LePage say they also want to protect the needy, they put a greater emphasis on responsibility and accountability, which showed up in proposals such as letter grades for public schools. Based on standardized tests and other criteria, schools are graded A-F by LePage’s Department of Education.

He saw it as a way to get attention to what he has said is a core problem in the state’s economy – Maine’s public schools are serving administrators and teacher unions well, but not teachers and students. If parents hold schools accountable for a poor grade, “the schools improve,” he said.

It will take some time to know if he is right, but school officials, education groups, Democrats and editorials railed again the program, using terms like “labeling” “threatening,” “shameful,” “faulty” and “uncompassionate.”

But grading schools isn’t just a conservative fad: About four months after LePage’s grading system was announced, another political figure – President Barack Obama -- proposed grading the country’s colleges to help parents and students know if the money they spent produced good results.

LePage said one of the two biggest disappointments so far was his failure to pass another education accountability bill. 

The Legislature’s education committee unanimously rejected LD 1524. The bill would have required public colleges to track the number of remedial courses needed by incoming high school students in math and language arts.

LePage has said, for example, that 54 percent of the students going into community colleges need such help (a statistic that has been confirmed by the college system). The originating high schools would have to pay for those remedial classes if LePage’s bill had passed.

“Our education is not a bad education,” he said. “We just haven’t ticked up and everyone else has.”

That assessment seems to have been confirmed by an expert interviewed by the Bangor Daily News July 27 last year after a Harvard study ranked Maine public schools next to last for rate of improvement of the 41 participating states.

Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said, “Maine is one of those states that hasn’t shown much gain over” the last 20 years.

Democrats and advocacy groups never denied that Maine’s schools needed to be better, but their ideas vs. LePage’s tell the bigger story of how each side sees the role of government.

Democrats proposed legislation to give more aid and encouragement to schools doing poorly, rather than calling then out.

LePage and his supporters don’t mind if some of those on the public payroll feel insulted.

“It’s all about accountability,” LePage said.

To conservatives like LePage, accountability goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. His legislation, for example, to put a lifetime cap of five years on Temporary Aid to Needy families (TANF), fulfilled a campaign promise to limit welfare.

Other welfare changes included drug testing for welfare recipients already convicted of drug offenses and denying TANF and food stamp benefits to immigrants who were legal residents. Maine was among only a handful of states to provide substantial benefits to legal resident immigrants.

According to the LePage administration, the limits resulted in a 41 percent decrease in TANF benefits between the bill’s enactment and now.

But that decrease hasn’t meant demand for help has disappeared. The state’s cities and towns say LePage’s reforms simply shifted the cost of public assistance to them and they’re now bearing the burden of helping out poor families through General Assistance, which is funded in part by local taxpayers.

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