March 22, 2013

LePage conference panelists: Use public funds for private schools

Gov. Paul LePage's education conference Friday at Cony High School in Augusta draws audience of more than 200 legislators, school officials, and interested onlookers

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

and Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — School choice advocates from across the country urged Mainers to transform the state's public education system by allowing taxpayer funds to be used to pay private and charter school tuition, and to increase teacher accountability, student testing, and the number of ways in which a person can become a certified teacher.

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan Michelle Zhang, Cony senior, Stephen Bowen, Maine commissioner of education, listen as Gov. Paul LePage opens the Governor�s Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday March 22, 2013 at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, speaks during Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday March 22, 2013 at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Dr. Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, speaks on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

The advocates, many of them from Florida and Indiana, made their cases at Gov. Paul LePage's education conference Friday at Cony High School in Augusta before an audience of more than 200 legislators, school officials, and interested members of the public. Invited panelists urged Maine policymakers to think of public education in terms of education that is publicly financed, but not necessarily taking place at public schools.

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who gave the keynote address, warned education-reform advocates in Maine to take lessons from his tenure as Indiana's top education official. Bennett said he was both a success and a failure as Indiana's state superintendent.

With support from a Republican governor and legislature, Bennett led the charge for several education reforms, but alienated many educators and lost re-election last year in an expensive, nationally watched campaign.

Bennett said reformers need to change their rhetoric and work with teachers.

"There is a belief among those of us who are like me that the teachers union will fight you every step of the way," he said. "And I'm going to tell you, if we paint them as the status quo and try to render them irrelevant, that's what'll happen."

The conference was about ideas to improve public schools in Maine, but some school leaders said they thought the conference was too prescriptive and didn't provide a voice for people actually working in or running those schools.

"It did not feel like it was a conversation," said Becky Fles, chairwoman of the school board in Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11. "It does feel a bit top-down."

Cony High School teacher Jeff DeJongh, president of the Augusta Education Association, criticized the decision to hold the conference on a school day, which meant that he and other Cony teachers couldn't attend, even though it was in their building.

"If the governor were really interested in having an open dialogue with Maine educators — meaning Maine public school educators — he would have done it in a way that included us," DeJongh said. "He has no interest in what public schools have to offer."

The conference, titled "Putting Students First," featured reform advocates from Florida, Indiana and Washington, D.C., talking about the policy changes they've made in their states or advocate nationwide.

The conference attendees also heard from Cony High School senior Michelle Zhang, Deering High School sophomore Mohamed Nur and Thornton Academy Head of School Rene Menard. Located in Saco, Thornton is one of 10 private schools in the state educating at least 60 percent publicly funded students.

In his opening address, LePage said he was inspired to launch the conference after attending the November 2012 national education summit convened by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Tallahassee-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The foundation has heavily influenced the LePage administration's education agenda. Correspondence acquired through public records requests has shown that Maine education commissioner Stephen Bowen has often turned to the foundation for advice, draft laws and other support on initiatives the foundation supports.

"I had the good fortune of listening to these folks, and I tell you it's astounding what they have to offer, and the things they will bring to you today, and the things that are happening across the nation," LePage said. "If you look at the track record in (Florida and Indiana), it's just phenomenal what they have done with their kids, and we can do that here."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Dr. Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, delivers the keynote speech during the Governor's Conference on Education on Friday at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Joe Phelan Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, standing right, speaks during Governor�s Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday March 22, 2013 at Cony High School in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

 


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