AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s recent statement that Maine students are “looked down upon” by people in other parts of the country derives from “life experience,” not any specific incidents or data, according to Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the governor.
“He is a business man. It’s from his life experience of talking to people,” Bennett told the Bangor Daily News on Monday. “While it’s anecdotal, he believes it.”
“I don’t care where you go in this country. If you come from Maine you’re looked down upon,” LePage said during a July 25 press conference at which he and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen announced an outline for their new education reform initiatives. “Twenty years ago if you came from Maine, they couldn’t wait to get you into their school.”
Bennett said Monday that the administration does not have any documents or specific anecdotes to substantiate that statement.
“It’s clear that the governor’s intentions are in the students’ best interests,” Bennett said. “It’s a reflection that Maine is a lot less competitive than it was 20 years ago. The governor told me in a conversation that we have lost an edge and that our students are falling behind.”
During that same press event, LePage said Maine students needed to take a special test to be admitted to William & Mary, a private college in Virginia. A spokeswoman at the school said that is not true.
According to Bennett, the governor also based his “looked down upon” statement on his assessment of a recent study by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance & Education Next, which ranked Maine 40th among 41 participating states in terms of its rate of improvement on standardized tests between 1992 and 2011.
“The Harvard study is a clear indication that we’ve become less competitive, and when you are less competitive, you become less marketable,” Bennett said.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, Senate assistant minority leader and a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, took issue with LePage’s interpretation of the Harvard study.
“He told half the story of what half that study found,” Alfond said Monday, citing Maine’s high national ranking for fourth grade math test scores and eighth grade reading and writing test scores.
“The governor’s comment that everyone looks down on the state of Maine was another embarrassing moment for the state and does not reflect the great entrepreneurs, students and teachers we have in Maine,” Alfond said Monday. “It puts Maine in the wrong light. Coming from the chief marketer of the state, it’s exactly the wrong message we want to be sending.”
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said Monday that, although LePage’s statement “probably wasn’t the best way to use the [political] capital that the Harvard study provided him,” it might help him achieve his goal of educational reform.
“I do get the argument he’s trying to make,” said Brewer, who acknowledged that it’s more common for political leaders to rely on documentation rather than “life experience” to make their case for policy changes.
However, during his tenure as governor, LePage has demonstrated that “he makes these kind of statements on a regular basis,” Brewer said. “He does and says things that the average politician wouldn’t do.”
“Regardless of what he said, who’s to say it wasn’t effective?” Brewer said.
LePage’s style makes him unconventional, Brewer said, but “he’s getting policy wins. That’s what counts. You don’t award beauty points. You reward significant policy accomplishments, and he’s getting them.”
“Different people have differing experiences,” Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor who also writes a blog for the Bangor Daily News, wrote in an email. “It is common for governors to propose policies that target education, the economy, health care, and quality of life. However, it is unusual for a state’s chief executive, who is interested in attracting businesses and individuals to the state, to discuss the state’s population in a negative way.”