January 10, 2013

LePage blasts charter school commission, teachers union

In a rare news conference, the governor says Maine schools are failing and the charter commission is intimidated by special interests.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A day after the state's Charter School Commission rejected four out of five applications for new charter schools, Gov. Paul LePage held a rare and impromptu press conference to blast the panel and the state teachers union.

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage smiles during a ceremony at the Blaine House in Augusta, Maine, on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. LePage signed three bills he said will help to improve Maine's business environment and open the door to jobs. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)


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LePage, in a 23-minute press conference held with Department of Education chief Steve Bowen and Republican lawmakers, said that Tuesday's decision by the commission to reject four applicants was proof that some of the panelists were intimidated by special interest groups like the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Board Association. In addition, LePage said that Maine public schools were "failing" and that the performance may not warrant additional funding in his next two-year budget.

Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the governor's press conference, which was called immediately after Democratic leadership unveiled its policy priorities for the session, effectively "picked a fight" with every educator in the state.

LePage kicked off his press conference Wednesday saying that Maine Education Association --  the state teachers union -- "the superintendents, principals, have not been totally honest to our kids,“

"In fact, our school systems are failing," LePage said.

LePage noted that his last budget included an additional $63 million for state education funding. 

“I’m not so sure, with the current economic crisis and the performance of schools, I’m just apt to do that again,” he said.

LePage said the average cost per student in Maine is somewhere "around $15,000,” compared to Florida's average of $12,000.

There is varying data tracking per-pupil spending.

According to the New America Foundation, a left-leaning public policy group, Maine spent just over $12,000 per K-12 student in 2009, below the Northeast regional average of nearly $15,000. 

U.S. Census Bureau numbers from 2009-2010 mostly match that Maine number – ranking the state 14th-highest in per-pupil spending when Washington, D.C., is counted alongside states. The bureau said the national per-pupil average is less than $11,000.

Quality Counts, a project organized by Education Week, reported today that Maine's per pupil spending was just under $15,000, the seventh highest in the country when including the District of Columbia.

The governor also promised reforms to the charter commission. He said that some members of the board were afraid to do their jobs, citing the threat of lawsuits by school districts.

“And frankly, I think those people, if they’re afraid to do the job, if they can’t put the students first, then they ought to resign,” he said. “And quite frankly, I think we ought to go back to the Legislature and change that structure because that structure’s failing us. It’s run by the status quo and if we stay in status quo, we might drop from 49th to 51st."

It's unclear which study the governor is citing for the state's education ranking. The National Center for Education Statistics, with the U.S. Department of Education, ranked Maine 11th nationally in reading achievement and 13th in math in 2011. The rankings, which put Maine slightly above the national average, was based on student performance in all grades participating in standardized testing.

The 2012 Quality Counts report card for state education efforts gave Maine a C. The grade, which is the same as the national average, was based six factors, including student achievement and teaching administrative performance and accountablity. 

The same survey gave Maine a B- for chances of student success. The national average was a C+.

 Alfond said the governor's misquoted several education facts and rankings. 

"Being governor doesn't entitled you to being in a fact-free zone," Aflond said. "... He did such an injustice to Maine's students and teachers today that it's hard to even understand what his purpose was." 

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