AUGUSTA — The Legislature's Education Committee voted 9-5 Wednesday to approve Steve Bowen as the state's new education chief.
The vote was the most partisan for Gov. Paul LePage's Cabinet picks. Four of the five Democrats on the panel voted against Bowen amid concerns about his lack of experience and his work for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group that has taken several positions highly critical of the state's education system.
Rep. Madonna Soctomah, representing the Passamaquoddy Tribe, also voted against Bowen's appointment.
Bowen, 41, served as a policy analyst at MHPC for four years following a 10-year teaching career, part of which coincided with a two-term stint in the Legislature.
He taught social studies at Camden-Rockport Middle School. He said a long-term substitute teacher filled in for him when he had to be in the Legislature.
Most of the public testimony supported Bowen's nomination.
Mark Gray, head of Maine Education Association, the state's teachers' union, testified neither for nor against Bowen. Gray told the panel that Bowen was energetic and capable, but he said the MEA had concerns about Bowen's work at the policy center.
Prior to joining LePage's administration earlier this year as a senior staffer, Bowen worked at MHPC for four years. He wrote several white papers advocating for charter schools and other controversial reforms such as performance-based pay for teachers and statewide school choice.
Last year, Bowen blasted the Education Department for its application for the Race to the Top program. Bowen called the state's application "embarrassing."
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, posed the toughest questions for Bowen. Alfond said Bowen had spent four years writing more than 30 white papers that "ridiculed" the department he could soon be heading.
"You've spent four years beating up on the fifth floor (DOE headquarters)," Alfond said. "Now you're going to show up and say to these people, 'Hi, I'm your new boss.'"
Bowen acknowledged that he'd been tough on the DOE, but said the bulk of his frustration came from the state's Race to the Top application.
During his opening remarks, Bowen said that DOE had become a directionless regulatory agency overburdened by too many policy mandates. Alfond later asked Bowen to reconcile that opinion with a new list of initiatives he planned to introduce.
"I don't want the job if it's just going to be keeping the lights on up there," Bowen said.
After the hearing, Alfond said he respected Bowen, but that he may not fully realize the challenges he'll face in implementing his proposals.
"He was talking out of both sides of his mouth and I think he'll be the first to tell you that," Alfond said.
Democrats also attacked Bowen's inexperience. Prior to his appointment, the state Board of Education noted Bowen's lack of administrative experience as a potential weakness.
But Bowen deflected those concerns, saying, "I realize that I'm not the traditional candidate for this job."
Later, when asked by a panelist about his inexperience, Bowen pointed to a list of draft proposals to overhaul the department.
"I need somebody to tell me ... what is on this list that I can't do?" he said.
Bowen said he went into the hearing believing he could get a unanimous endorsement.
Alfond said he was not yet sure whether Democrats will vote against Bowen's appointment when he appears before the Senate for confirmation.
If approved by lawmakers, Bowen would take over a department with a $2 billion annual budget and about 130 employees.