March 23, 2013

LePage conference touts school choice, but not all are convinced

The governor's education conference offers an empowering message, but teachers' unions find fault.

By COLIN WOODARD Staff Writer

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

Gov. Paul LePage opens his Governor's Conference on Education this morning at Cony High in Augusta.

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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

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Michelle Zhang, a Cony High School senior, and Stephen Bowen, commissioner of education, listen as Gov. Paul LePage opens the Governor's Conference on Education: Putting Students First on Friday 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 Le-Page's education conference in Augusta before an audience of 200 legislators, school officials and interested members of the public.

Invited panelists urged Maine's policy makers 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, argued to allow students to use taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend the school of their choice. 

"If I come to Maine, I am going to choose where I live and where my children go to school and the simple reason is that I can afford to," Bennett said. "Shouldn't a poor, minority, single mother have that same right?"

INSPIRED BY FLORIDA'S EXAMPLE

In his opening address, Le-Page 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. 

"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."

Most of the speakers had presented at Bush's conference or worked for his foundation, including Bennett, Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality and Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.

Friday's conference spotlighted reforms in Florida, with advocates saying the state had seen remarkable improvements in test scores. The reforms, which were instituted while Bush was governor, include a letter-grade rating system for public schools, vigorous testing and an expansion of voucher programs, charter schools and virtual schools. 

"Florida used to be one of the worst-performing states" on national standardized tests, said presenter Matt Ladner, a Foundation for Excellence in Education staffer and a fellow at the conservative Goldwater Institute. "It has made a lot of improvements. What they have done is proved that demography is not destiny."

"We were so bad we would try anything because we just wanted to get better," said the foundation's executive director, Patricia Levesque. 

AFFECTING MAINE'S AGENDA

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.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation published Sept. 2, 2012, found that Bowen also relied on foundation officials to develop Maine's digital education policies, forward draft legislation and the text of the governor's executive order on the issue, and pay for Bowen and education department staff to attend foundation-sponsored conferences, including the national summit that inspired LePage.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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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

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

click image to enlarge

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

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

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

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

  


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