Former Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a campaign news conference at Buker Community Center in Augusta on Monday. LePage said if elected governor he will propose a Parents Bill of Rights, which would include notifying parents of all “sensitive materials,” such as discussions of gender and sexuality, and allowing them to opt their students out. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Former Gov. Paul LePage unveiled an education platform Monday that trotted out some old chestnuts from prior administrations, such as school choice and consolidation, but included a new plan to topple Maine’s “woke” education system with a Parents Bill of Rights.

“Maine needs a governor that will do whatever it takes to improve the opportunities of our children going forward,” LePage said at the Buker Community Center Augusta. “While Janet Mills has focused on pushing extreme woke agendas on our kids that is divisive and age inappropriate, I am focusing on getting back to the basics.”

LePage says he wants Maine schools to get back to teaching the basics: reading, science and math. But it’s clear the dissatisfied parents at LePage’s side Monday want control over what can’t be taught: anything sexually explicit, especially gender and sexual diversity.

Alicia Lawson, a 38-year-old mother of five in Winthrop, said she was upset when she learned about a poster highlighting a broad array of sexual orientation that was used in a discussion at her 11-year-old daughter’s school-based civil rights club. Heterosexuality wasn’t even included as a choice, she said.

“What is most unsettling is that I wasn’t given the opportunity to opt my child out,’ Lawson said. “I was not notified about the sensitive content being placed in my 11-year-old’s school. I wasn’t prepared to talk with her about what she saw. I was undercut as a parent.”

Parents noted that some school districts and teachers now ask students to choose gender pronouns for school use and then ask if those differ from what is used at home, excluding parents from a sexually explicit topic.


LePage said he wants to stop this kind of behavior by making sure parents know what is being taught in their schools and are able to opt out of such discussions, even though curriculum is usually handled by local school boards. Republican Parents Bills of Rights introduced in other states have called for similar changes.

LePage gave conservative parents what they wanted to hear: “Folks, if you cannot discuss these kind of issues in the workplace, what makes it appropriate for them to be spoken in a classroom full of children?”

Democrats and teachers’ unions blasted the plan, saying LePage had eight years to help Maine’s education system but chose to cut funding to public schools and childcare, attack teachers, race through eight education commissioners in eight years and generally set a bad example for children.

“Paul LePage failed Maine parents and children for eight years,” said Democratic Party Chairman Drew Gattine. “There is a reason why Republicans and Democrats joined together in bipartisan unity time after time to reject LePage’s attacks on public education.”

Democrat Janet Mills fully funded the state’s 55 percent share of education spending for the first time, made free lunch available to all Maine public school students and increased state funding for childcare, Democrats say.

They say LePage’s new education plan consists mostly of old ideas that have been shot down before, like his voucher proposal; or are already allowed, such as the right of parents to pull their children out of sexually explicit instruction; or are not under the governor’s control, such as school curriculum.


“Unfortunately, rather than working to strengthen our public schools, Paul LePage is trying to drive a wedge between parents and educators,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association. “Our goal, as educators, is to make sure we have parents as partners in their child’s education.”

LePage acknowledged that Maine is a state where the bulk of educational decisions rests in the hands of local school boards, and said he wouldn’t want to change that. As governor, he could only advise on some of these matters. But a district that didn’t comply could lose state funds, he warned.

Democrats jumped on this aspect of the proposal and painted it as LePage throwing his weight around.

“Maine has a longstanding tradition of local control, one in which we empower parents and school boards to work together to decide what belongs in schools and classrooms,” Gattine said. “Maine parents don’t want and don’t need Paul LePage getting in the way.”

LePage said he wants to help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic by paying teachers to provide after-school tutoring. He blamed the Mills administration for keeping Maine schools closed to in-person instruction for as long as they were, even though it was largely a district-by-district decision.

While students across the country fell behind significantly during the pandemic, there is no proof the problem is worse in Maine than anywhere else. In Portland, the average SAT score is down from before the pandemic, as are middle and elementary school math and reading achievement, but there is no statewide data yet available showing how students fared last school year compared to pre-pandemic.


The LePage plan calls for creating a parents’ governing board to offer feedback and recommendations to the state Department of Education, and reforming the state Board of Education to include parent members who have children in public schools.

LePage is proposing a voucher system that would allow parents to use the entire state share of a child’s public school education costs – about $18,000 per student per year – to pay for parochial, charter or a private education.

It’s an idea that he’s always liked, LePage said Monday. LePage tried to create a small-scale educational choice program for underprivileged students in his first term in office, to build on his efforts to enshrine charter schools, but the idea was shot down by Democrats.

More than a dozen states have such voucher programs. Critics claim the programs favor those students of means who have transportation, and contribute to the decline of public school systems by luring top students away.

The proposal also calls for teacher and district incentives to tutor students who fell behind under Mills’ pandemic policies, to reorganize education dollars to offer after-school care until 5:00 p.m. to help working mothers get back to work, and for starting vocational education in middle school.

LePage said education had been the great equalizer in his life, and opened the door for him to escape the crushing poverty of his youth that had led to him being homeless on the streets of Lewiston at age 11. He eventually earned an MBA from University of Maine.


He noted that he was a product of school choice, having attended parochial schools.

The education issue plays well among Maine conservatives who don’t like what they perceive to be the encroachment of social issues like sexual and gender diversity into public school classrooms, even if those issues are largely controlled at the local level.

LePage said Monday he didn’t want to take any of that control away from towns and cities, but implied that he would withhold some percentage of the state’s local education funding to any municipality that didn’t comply with his education plan – like his consolidation proposal, for example.

LePage said he wants to consolidate the state’s education system, combining shrinking student bodies from schools within geographic regions to reduce the number of administrators and other staff and cut costs. The unused school buildings could be turned into affordable housing.

LePage is also hoping to capitalize on a national wave of parent frustration with public schools to make new inroads into Maine’s suburbs, an area where Democrats have traditionally done well. He is betting on a reservoir of parental resentment and perceived learning loss that built up during the pandemic.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, introduced legislation to create a federal Parents’ Bill of Rights in November.


“America has long recognized the right of parents to direct their children’s education but we are now seeing a concerted effort by the left to shut parents out,” Hawley said at the time, saying educators had quietly introduced critical race theory into schools, among other things. “It’s time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats, and empower them to start a new era of openness in education,” he said.

Maine Democrats accused LePage of jumping on the bandwagon – one led by Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose back-to-basics education plan was frequently cited by Maine Republicans during their party convention in the spring. Youngkin campaigned for LePage in Lewiston earlier this month.

“LePage is taking a national Republican playbook and trying to import it into Maine,” Gattine said.

Many other Republican plans have attacked school districts for teaching critical race theory dressed up as the celebration of racial diversity, a topic that Maine Republicans raised during the overhaul of party platform language this spring at their convention. LePage’s Bill of Rights didn’t mention race at all.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story