PORTLAND— Maine’s outspoken governor, who was homeless as a child, and a legislative leader born into a wealthy family exchanged attacks over charter schools Wednesday, reigniting a fiery political debate in the state over school choice.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, hosted an event at Portland’s Baxter Academy to celebrate the school’s opening in September and showcase the importance of school choice on Maine’s economy and future.

But the event was overshadowed by a dispute between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland over the school’s ties with the conservative organization.

On Wednesday, Alfond elaborated on remarks he made earlier this week criticizing Baxter for allowing a political “fringe” group to host the event.

“Baxter Academy, in their first big public appearance, has decided to collaborate and coordinate with a fringe, propaganda nonprofit,” Alfond said. “I do not believe that is what a public charter school with public taxpayer money should be doing.”

LePage, who grew up poor and homeless in Lewiston, said Alfond, the grandson of shoe business founder and philanthropist Harold Alfond, chose to attack the school “simply because he had it easy.” He pointed to Alfond’s private education: After attending public school from second to 10th grade, Alfond went to a private school in Boston for his final two years of high school.


“He had the best education money could buy,” LePage told about 80 people in attendance. “This is public education and this will be as good as private education.”

Charter schools are public schools run by private groups that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for less regulation. Baxter and three other charter schools will open in the fall, joining two others that opened last year. The state has capped the number of charter schools at 10, but LePage told reporters after the event that he would like to see “many, many more” charter schools open in Maine.

LePage said all students learn differently and that charter schools offer another option for Maine students to succeed.

“The education future of this state is dependent on us to … make sure opportunities are given to our children to learn,” he said.

But Alfond said expanding the state’s charter schools divert funds from already cash-strapped traditional public schools.

“We’re taking an underfunded system and opening up more schools, which is going to create more stress and create more difficulties for our public schools to operate and be successful,” Alfond said. “I think it’s a deliberate attempt to essentially weaken our public schools,” he said.


Baxter school officials dismissed Alfond’s claim that they were aligning with the conservative group, saying the two groups simply share ideas about the importance of school choice.

“It’s not a partnership, it’s a luncheon,” said Allison Crean Davis, vice chair of school’s board of directors. Amanda Clark, an education policy analyst at the center, echoed Davis’ comments.

LePage said Alfond is attempting to deny Maine students the choice of where they should have their education.

Alfond said the governor is trying to distract Mainers from the real concern that a group with conservative leanings is collaborating with a public school.

“Once again it’s disappointing that he’s come after me personally and using the highest office in the state of Maine to basically go after a person instead of understanding what the real issue is,” Alfond said. The school is supposed to training students in things like mathematics, “not training students to be political operatives,” he added.

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