Ashley Graffam, a 2006 graduate of South Portland High School, headed to the University of New Hampshire for her college education, along with a number of other Maine students. At no point, she said, did she feel judged as inferior for being from Maine.
“I feel like I was prepared to go to college,” Graffam said Thursday. “No matter what state they’re from, some kids learn better than others.”
The 23-year-old was among several recent and current students who reacted to comments by Gov. Paul LePage on perceptions of the quality of public education in Maine. At an appearance Wednesday with Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, LePage rolled out an education reform plan and said Maine’s reputation for quality education was suffering.
“I don’t care where you go in this country — if you come from Maine, you’re looked down upon now,” the governor said.
LePage’s plan includes several familiar initiatives, such as expanding school choice through vouchers and creating more charter schools, as well as some new ones including requiring local school districts to pay for remedial courses for their college students.
LePage cited a recent study by Harvard University that showed Maine was not making strides in student achievement as proof that the state is falling behind.
But several students interviewed Thursday offered contradictory views.
Benjamin Kissin, 22, of Freeport, recently graduated from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. He’s home for the summer but is enrolled in graduate school at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., this fall. He said his education in Maine more than prepared him for college, and he disputed the governor’s notion that Mainers are looked down upon.
“That wasn’t the case for me at all. In some cases, I was more prepared than students from other states,” he said. “This is another instance of the governor embarrassing our state and its citizens.”
Riley McCarthy, 18, graduated from Windham High School last year and is a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. “There aren’t a lot of people from Maine that go there. I don’t feel like people judge you,” she said.
Students proved their capabilities by being accepted to a competitive school, she said, and the state they grew up in or where they went to high school is irrelevant.
LePage’s remark also spurred criticism from other sources, including the Maine Education Association, the state teacher’s union, which has opposed much of LePage’s education agenda, and the Maine Democratic Party.
“(The governor) again degraded our own people, saying that Maine students are ‘looked down upon’ in other parts of the country. Of course, he has no evidence of this, but reality doesn’t stand in the way of his plan to privatize K-12 education in Maine,” Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said in an email to supporters.
Admission directors at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Colby College in Waterville, who interact regularly with students from Maine and other states from across the country, also disputed LePage’s comments.
“I would say (the governor’s) statement is patently false,” said Steve Thomas, Colby director of admissions.
“If what he said is true, no Maine kids would be going to college out of state. They would all stay here. That’s not the case. And other schools want Maine kids.”
Thomas also said Maine students at Colby regularly out-perform students from other states.
Steve Meiklejohn, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin, agreed that Maine students are no more or less prepared that students from other states.
“What we look at is ‘Are they doing the most with the opportunities that are available to them, knowing that they don’t all have access to the same opportunities,’” he said.
There are many different types of standardized testing so it’s often difficult to rank states on student achievement. Average SAT scores in Maine in 2001 were slightly below the national average, but the average for seniors was actually higher than the national figure. Additionally, Maine requires all high school juniors to take the SATs, other states do not.
Opponents are accusing the governor of using any excuse he can to continue pushing a radical education reform agenda. Aside from his comment about Mainers being “looked down upon,” critics say the data LePage and Bowen used from the Harvard study is flawed. It’s true that Maine has not seen its test scores increase as much as other states, the say, but Maine’s scores were higher to begin with, so there was less room for improvement.
Monnica Chan, director of policy and research for the New England Board of Higher Education, said all states are grappling with remediation rates and student performance. She said Maine is no better or worse than any other states.
“In fact, Maine has been a leader in some areas, especially in competency-based education,” she said.
Portland Press Herald Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this story.