Gov. Paul LePage hit back Monday against a wave of campaign ads targeting his education policies.
The ads, run primarily by the Maine Democratic Party and the political action committee Citizens Who Support Public Schools, have targeted several races that could determine whether LePage will continue working with Republican majorities in the House and Senate in the next two years.
LePage said the ads are untrue and misrepresent his administration’s reform efforts. The Republican governor, who rarely grants press interviews, made the comment in a prepared video address, a tactic he has employed recently for expressing his viewpoint.
LePage rebutted suggestions that he cut funding for public schools, citing an increase of $63 million in the current state budget. The increase replaced the loss of one-time federal dollars from President Obama’s stimulus bill.
LePage said claims that he has tried to undermine public schools are “just plain false.”
The governor also used his address to lobby against Democratic candidates who stand to benefit from the third-party political ads.
“It’s interesting … to watch politicians who in recent years went along with one-time funding gimmicks and budget cuts to our schools now act as if they’re the champions of Maine students,” LePage said. “They were not. And they won’t be. For these folks, it’s just political rhetoric, and I don’t think our students should be pawns in a special-interest chess match.”
The governor’s remarks underscore a political battle between his administration and the Maine Education Association, the union representing public school teachers. The union has lobbied against several of LePage’s education proposals and helped to defeat several of his more controversial ones, such as school choice and public funding for religious schools.
The union, along with the National Education Association, has helped to fund the PAC, which has spent more than $172,000 on several legislative races. The spending has gone into political ads that depict Republican candidates as advancing policies that undercut public schools and advocate for for-profit education models.
LePage said the political attacks are aimed at legislation authorizing charter schools. Much of the advertising also attacks Republican candidates who support the governor’s virtual-schools policy.
An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, published Sept. 2, showed that the administration allowed K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation’s largest for-profit virtual-school company, to shape the governor’s education policy and ghost-write his proclamation supporting digital learning.
The investigation spurred claims that the governor had effectively allowed K12 Inc. to influence an education policy from which it could profit.
K12 Inc. is under investigation in Florida over allegations that it used uncertified teachers and tried to persuade employees to conceal their substandard qualifications from school district officials.
Last week, K12 Inc. resubmitted its application to open the Maine Virtual Academy, a taxpayer-funded digital learning school. That application, and another from K12’s rival Connections Education of Baltimore, were tabled by Maine’s Charter School Commission in June.
Virtual schools have become a flashpoint in the administration’s battle with the Maine Education Association. In October, the union released a report that was extremely critical of the proposed schools and their corporate managers.
The report urged the Charter School Commission to deny the applications of K12 Inc. and Connections Academy or to at least “create safeguards to prevent against the type of practices seen in other states.”
In his statement on Monday, LePage did not mention virtual schools. Instead, he suggested that the teachers union is resisting reform efforts because they threaten its power base.
“For years, the groups that had controlled the levers of power in Augusta kept education reform stuck in a political sideshow and many of our students who didn’t learn well in traditional schools were left to fend for themselves,” LePage said.
The governor said his administration will continue to pursue education reforms when the next Legislature convenes. He said he will work with lawmakers who put students ahead of politics, “union rhetoric and partisan talking points.”
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said in a prepared statement that Democrats welcome debate about public education.
“If the voters want their schools turned into corporate assets for out of state companies, they can vote for LePage’s allies,” Grant said. “But if the voters want strong public schools, supporting Democratic candidates is the only real option this year.”
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: