WINSLOW — For about 12 minutes Friday, Gov. Paul LePage put aside tough political talk to read softly to an audience of more than 100 children.
But things briefly turned political during a question-and-answer period at St. John Catholic School when, among questions about what Maine means to him and what he wanted to be when he grew up, LePage also took a shot at the state’s public school sytem and then blasted newspapers.
LePage, at the South Garand Street school as part of Catholic School Week, read to the group of kindergarten to sixth grade studens from “Baxter at the Blaine House.”
He told students that when he was a kid, he wanted to drive a Pepsi truck when he grew up.
But things got political when a student asked the governor what his best accomplishment has been.
“My best accomplishment as governor is still yet to come,” he said. “It’s improving the school system in our state.”
LePage said private schools such as St. John are “showing the rest of the people in Maine that you’re getting the best education, and every child in Maine deserves to have the same good education that you’re all getting.”
“By the time I’m done, education in Maine is going to be great,” he said.
LePage also criticized Maine newspapers when a student asked him what his greatest fear as governor is.
“My greatest fear in the state of Maine: newspapers,” he said to laughter from the children. “I’m not a fan of newspapers.”
Afterward, LePage talked more about newspapers with a Morning Sentinel reporter.
“There’s a lack of objectivity,” he said. “If they were fair and balanced, I would be a supporter.”
LePage added that he doesn’t extend his criticism to other forms of media — TV and radio — because they don’t “spin” the news.
LePage said he believes the students, who range in age from kindergarten to sixth grade, can distinguish between fact and opinion.
“Kids in this school — in this type of environment — are readers. They understand,” he said.
LePage said newspaper circulation in Maine and elsewhere in the nation is dropping because “people have finally realized that what they read might not be the truth.”
Last year, during a presentation at Waterville Junior High School, LePage told 150 eighth-graders that reading newspapers in Maine is “like paying somebody to tell you lies.”
During a reception in the school library Friday after he met with students, LePage told reporters that Maine’s public education system has been “stuck in status quo for 20 years” and charter schools provide opportunities to custom tailor instruction to individual children.
LePage said Maine is ranked 40th of 41 states in student improvement, citing “Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance” — a Harvard University study released last year.
LePage added that lobbyists, the Maine Principals’ Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and other unions “are doing an awful, awful thing to future generations of Mainers.”
“They need to look in the mirror,” he said.
The National Center for Education Statistics ranked Maine 11th nationally in reading achievement and 13th in math in 2011. The rankings, which put Maine slightly above the national average, were based on standardized testing. The 2012 Quality Counts report card for state education efforts gave Maine a C, which is the same as the national average. The same survey gave Maine a B minus for chances of student success. The national average was a C plus.
Last month, the LePage administration announced a proposal to allow for more charter schools in the state. Charter schools get public funding, but are formed and operated by parents, teachers or community leaders and are largely exempt from the rules and regulations that public school districts are subject to.
The Maine Education Association, the union representing most of the state’s teachers, opposes growth of charter schools, citing a concern that they drain money from public schools. There are two in the state — in Cornville and Fairfield — and the state caps the number allowed at 10.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239