LePage opened the conference by relating his own education story, which included learning English beginning at age 13. He said having an educator allow him to take college entrance tests in French changed his life.
“I believe my mission for the rest of my life is to make sure that every Maine student has the same opportunity that I had,” said LePage. “That is my mission. There are two things that drive me. Having every student have the best opportunity for education and secondly to make Maine a very prosperous state. That’s all that drives me.”
The summit, which was announced by LePage in his State of the State address, involves education officials from across the country and is billed by the administration as a sort of brainstorming session on education reform.
The first session focused on the issue of school choice, which the governor has consistently worked to expand in Maine.
There were also sessions scheduled on educator effectiveness and an afternoon session called “The Florida Story,” which involves three presenters from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The conference was scheduled to end with a keynote presentation by Dr. Tony Bennett, who is Florida’s commissioner of education.
But LePage began taking fire for his summit early Friday morning. Chris Korzen of Maine’s Majority said in a press release that LePage is attempting to dismantle Maine’s public education system.
“The purpose of this conference is to encourage radical education ‘reforms’ in Maine,” reads the press release. “The conference features little involvement from Maine’s public education system, but plenty of input from representatives who stand to benefit financially from these for-profit education reforms.”
Korzen said Maine should not be listening to experts from out of states, particularly Bennett, who Korzen said has failed at education reform in the past.
“We’ve got to start asking ourselves, why are people from Indiana and Florida suddenly interested in changing our schools?” said Korzen. “The answer is simple: they are positioned to profit financially from those reforms.”
Democratic members of the Legislature called 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,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in a press release. “Right now, in schools across the state, innovative programs are being tested that have yet to be brought to every classroom. If the governor is looking for new ideas he should start with what is already working here in Maine.”
The conference also featured some impassioned appeals from students, including Mohammad Nur, a sophomore at Deering High School.
“Education can come in different shapes and forms and sizes and you learn from every experience you have,” said Nur. “Students tend to learn more and work harder in classes that they enjoy.”