After three years of making it a priority, LePage glossed over education in State of the State

Former Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage discuss their new ABC Plan for education reform on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in the State House. LePage used the opportunity to launch harsh criticism of the state's education system.  (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)

Former Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage discuss their new ABC Plan for education reform on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in the State House. LePage used the opportunity to launch harsh criticism of the state’s education system. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)

Education is important.

Other than a quick nod to the success of his “bridge program,” which makes it easier for students to earn college credits while still in high school, that was the extent of Gov. Paul LePage’s focus on education Tuesday night during this State of the State address.

“I have said it many times. Education saved my life,” said LePage, who is well known for his hardscrabble upbringing. “Throwing money at poverty will not end poverty. Education and mentoring will end poverty.”

It’s surprising that LePage, who made education reform a central theme during his gubernatorial campaign and first three years in office, didn’t spend longer on the issue. Compounding the surprise is what’s happening right now around the creation of virtual charter schools, which LePage supports so fervently that he suggested in 2012 that the members of the Maine Charter School Commission resign if they weren’t prepared to act quickly on two virtual school applications.

Virtual schools are schools where the students participate in classes from remote location via the internet.

Last week, the Charter School Commission gave preliminary approval to two applications for virtual charter schools. Though last week’s vote doesn’t constitute final approval, the two applications are the subject of public hearings this week and are scheduled for final votes on March 4.

The Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing Tuesday, just hours before the State of the State, on LD 1736. That bill that would put a moratorium on the creation of virtual schools while the Department of Education develops its own virtual school, which would be accessible to traditional public school students to supplement their educations.

Testimony on the bill was extensive, with the Maine School Board Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals Association and the Maine Education Association in support. Among the opponents were parents who support the two existing virtual school applications and the Maine Department of Education.

LD 1736 will undoubtedly face opposition in the full Legislature and presumably by LePage if it ever gets to the governor’s desk, but the fact it is proposed by a bipartisan group – and sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, a Republican from Ellsworth – and was carried over from last session suggest that it has a chance to become law.

Maybe LePage mostly dodged the issue because he has a history of tough talk when it comes to Maine schools, including  saying during a June 2012 press conference that the education system in Maine is “dismal,” “failing,” “stagnant” and that Maine students are “looked down upon” when they go to other states to work or study.

Some of the fiercest criticism LePage has received during his first term has been from education organizations, particularly after that June 2012 press conference and last year when he created a controversial A-through-F grading system for all public schools. It’s possible that in an effort to keep his speech positive, LePage saw delving into education reform as too much of a hornet’s nest.

 

 

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.