Gov. Paul LePage plans to host a conference this month showcasing the controversial education reforms developed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and promoted nationwide by a foundation he founded.

The daylong Governor’s Conference on Education on March 22 at Cony High School in Augusta gives senior officials at Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education prominent billing, including executive director Patricia Levesque, a registered Florida lobbyist for digital education companies who has helped shape LePage administration policies in ways favorable to that sector. The foundation has played a influential behind-the-scenes role in shaping the governor’s education agenda, a MaineToday Media investigation found last year.

The keynote speaker at the conference will be Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett, chairman of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change group, of which Maine education commissioner Stephen Bowen is also a member. The first third of the proceedings are devoted to the Florida reform model as presented by Levesque — Bush’s former deputy chief of staff for education — and two of her foundation colleagues: staffer and Goldwater Institute fellow Matt Ladner and staff speechwriter Mike Thomas.

Bush, who is considered a presidential prospect for 2016, has been promoting a set of reforms he championed while governor of Florida. They include a letter-grade rating system for public schools, vigorous testing and an expansion of voucher programs, charter schools and full-time virtual schools. He has traveled the country giving presentations to state officials and created the foundation to promote Florida-style reforms in other states.

The model is polarizing, generally embraced by school choice enthusiasts and vilified by teacher’s unions and others who fear the Florida model encourages the privatization of public education.

“Florida is seen as a model for the rest of the country, and one of their greatest principles is the accountability of the public school system through a letter-grade system,” said Amanda Clark, education policy analyst at the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, who noteed that students at poorly performing public schools are given vouchers that they can use to escape their school, possibly en masse. “This incentivizes schools to improve to regain the students who will be lost.”

“The students who leave the failing school will receive a better quality education elsewhere, and if their old school can’t improve, why keep it running?” she said.

William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder disagrees. “They go around the country with the same slides doing this dog-and-pony show, but in reality the Florida gains are not greater than anyone else in the nation,” said Mathis, who says Bush falsely ascribes education improvements to his policies, when other initiatives he did not favor are more likely to be responsible. “Unfortunately, things can take on political momentum and energy and a bandwagon that have no foundation in facts.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the conference’s purpose is to “introduce information and best practices that come from a variety of states, including Florida.” (The other presenters are Eric Lerum, vice president of former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst; Jeanne Allen, the founder of the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform; Alisha Morgan, a Democratic Georgia state legislator who won national awards for championing school choice; retired Maine Maritime Academy professor Alden Monberg; and the headmaster of Thornton Academy, Rene Menard.)

Bennett emphasized that they wanted “to get everybody together in a room” — teachers, teacher’s union, superintendents, legislators and the public — and “build a dialogue that can distribute information in a way that can help move things forward.”

Bush foundation shapes Maine policies

Jeb Bush’s Tallahassee-based foundation has had considerable influence on education policies under development in Maine. Internal administration correspondence acquired through public records requests show the short-staffed Bowen often turned to the foundation for help. Levesque and her colleagues forwarded Bowen draft teacher-effectiveness laws and offered to draft documentation to support the letter grading of schools. Ladner advised the commissioner on open enrollment school choice legislation.

A MaineToday Media investigation published Sept. 2 found that Bowen relied on Levesque and other foundation officials heavily to develop Maine’s digital education policies, forward draft legislation and the text of the governor’s executive order on the issue, and pay for Bowen and other staff members to attend foundation-sponsored conferences.

Bush has touted Maine as a potential model for the nation in regard to digital education and online schools, according to e-mails sent by Levesque to commissioner Bowen. He praised LePage for his digital education efforts in his address before the Republican National Convention last August.

Last May, Bowen also asked Levesque whether the foundation could help find and fund “a couple of good people” to implement newly passed legislation on teacher effectiveness and standards-based diplomas. He also solicited advice on alternative teacher certification.

In late July the commissioner wrote Levesque, saying “we are going to steal from the Florida playbook here and put an ABCDF (school grading) system in place” and asking for advice in how to administer funds earmarked to help failing schools. “Thanks!” he concluded. “What would I do without you guys!”

The school grading effort received renewed impetus in November, after LePage witnessed a presentation on the topic at Bush’s national education conference in Washington, according to education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin. “He was impressed by it and wanted to implement it here,” he said.

LePage made school grading a central plank of his State of the State speech in February.

Maine may modify Florida model

While the governor’s office is highlighting the Florida model, the education department appears to be deviating from some of its more controversial aspects in its execution.

The department is focused only on issuing letter grades to schools, and is doing so using metrics intended to acknowledge and capture positive momentum and differences in the numbers of low income, special education, or non-English-speaking students, Connerty-Marin said. “Our purpose is not to ‘name and shame’ but rather to help parents, communities and school boards understand how schools are doing and then support schools in improving,” he said.

“I think there will be some surprises where schools that many expect would get a D or F will get C’s because they are making progress, and others that are thought to be A schools that may get a B because they have gaps in terms of minority or special education students not making progress,” he said.

Connerty-Marin said to his knowledge, the department was not planning a voucher system to facilitate student abandonment of schools with low letter grades, although Bennett said they were working on a bill that would give vouchers to economically disadvantaged students who might or might not become tied to the letter-grade system. The department also has no plans to duplicate a Florida provision that gives bonuses to well-performing schools that has been criticized for increasing inequality. Instead, both Marin and Bennett said the focus was on finding resources to help poorly performing schools improve.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Mathis at the National Education Policy Center — which receives some funding from a teacher’s union — remains concerned the foundation is seeking to exploit rather than revive public education.

“There’s a huge amount of money going into the privatization of things like charter schools and cyber-schools and often into corporate pockets instead of teacher’s salaries,” he said. “It embraces a market model mentality of reform that argues that the market will miraculously cure all.”

Maine’s teachers union is also skeptical of the foundation’s proffered model.

“It doesn’t seem to me that the most effective and successful way to provide education for Maine’s students is to fall back to Florida’s model,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Maine Education Association. “We have excellent teachers and smart students, but we keep jumping from pillar to post, not giving enough time for one plan to be successful before moving on to another.”