LePage’s Education Conference Raises Concerns With Teachers Union 

Governor LePage hosted his first education conference in Augusta on Friday. Those in the governor’s administration are calling it an exchange of ideas. Others say it’s nothing more than an attack on public education.The theme of the conference seemed to be the only thing everyone could agree on, “Putting Students First.” As far as the best way to achieve that goal, that’s where the great divide seems to be.Most of the discussion focused on the controversial issue of school choice and the school voucher system that provides public money for students to pay private school tuition. It’s a direction LePage and Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen seem to be nudging Maine in. Keynote speaker, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, is a self-proclaimed “school choice guy” with a high rate of success implementing the model in Florida. “The concept of putting students first is not a tagline. It’s not a marketing ploy. It’s a filter we should put every decision we make in education through,” Bennett said.Bennett and other school choice supporters say the concept is a way to instill social justice into public schools. Bennett gave this example to reporters. “If I come to Maine, I’m going to choose where I live. I’m going to choose where my children go to school and the simple reason is because I can afford to. Shouldn’t a poor, minority, single mother have that same right? Shouldn’t she be able to choose where her children go to school based on the quality of education?”But the conference and its message generated its share of outrage. Lois Kilby-Chesley, President of the Maine Education Association, certainly did not see eye-to-eye with the speakers at the conference. She and other opponents of the school choice model say the conference is nothing more than an attack on public schools, and the voucher program just lowers public school enrollment and puts public school money into private hands. “The people that are here are clearly anti-public education representatives,” Kilby-Chesley said, adding that this system also jeopardizes local control over education. “When we have corporations or private businesses running our schools, we don’t have a say in how things are done.”Maine Senate President Justin Alfond also piled on, releasing a statement calling the conference “a dog and pony show.” “Instead of hearing a sales pitch from an out of state group that views students as revenue streams, we should be bringing together the best of Maine,” Alfond said.The conference in Augusta comes at a time when more and more states are adopting school choice. According to a recent study, the United States now has 210,000 students currently using public funds to attend private schools. 60,000 of those students live in Florida, Bennett’s home state. “This is not about privatizing education,” Bennett said. “I’m very agnostic about the types of schools we have as long as their high quality. I think that should be the filter we should put. It’s about more high quality schools, more options for children, and giving more children opportunities to succeed for an economy that we’ll never see.”The Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week after that state’s voucher program was challenged legally by the state’s teachers union and local school boards who say the funding principle behind the concept is unconstitutional. Kilby-Chesley was asked Friday if the MEA would take such a drastic step if Maine lawmakers pass school choice. “The MEA hasn’t had discussions about that yet, ” she said. “We believe the way to stop this is in the legislature, before things get any worse.” Maine’s Education Commissioner is urging everyone to just take a breath. He says any ideas that come from this conference will go through the full legislative process before being implemented. “Let’s just sit and talk,” Bowen said. “Why do we have to be at daggers drawn about this stuff? Can’t we just sit and talk a little bit and think about what are these ideas and ‘I like that one’, ‘I don’t like this other one’ and we’ll go from there.”