Former education chief Stephen Bowen arrived at the State House in 2011 with the same sense of purpose as his boss, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Shot like a cannon from the Republican wave election in 2010, both moved with alacrity to introduce a slew of education reforms.
But for all their ideological agreement, there was a divergence in style, and ultimately, political trajectory.
Bowen resigned his post Sept. 12, departing for a national education policy group. He left lauding LePage for supporting an aggressive reform agenda. But at one point in 2012, LePage questioned whether Bowen was pushing that agenda forcefully enough, or if he had fallen under the influence of Department of Education staffers held over from the previous Democratic administration.
Likewise, Bowen sometimes struggled to manage LePage’s high expectations, some of which clashed with a political reality the governor seemed unwilling to accept: Lawmakers, including many Republicans, would not support some of his more controversial initiatives.
More than 500 pages of memos and emails obtained by the Maine Education Association help shed light on Bowen’s tenure as education commissioner. The documents foreshadow the task that awaits the state’s next education chief, who, if the past 2½ years are a prologue, will play a prominent role in the administration.
The documents also reveal more about LePage. The governor’s unconventional, headlong style is championed by supporters. But at times, staff and political appointees seem to struggle in directing an unyielding chief executive who knows what he wants but is dismissive of the legislative process required to get it.
Bowen, now director of innovation for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan nationwide association of state education commissioners, discouraged interpreting the documents as a rift between him and LePage. He did, however, acknowledge that he and the governor had their differences.
“I suspect that if you had all the emails between (former education chief) Susan Gendron and whoever was directing education policy for (former Gov. John) Baldacci, you’d see a lot of the same thing,” he said. “I think my relationship with Gov. LePage wasn’t much different. Sometimes I convinced him, sometimes he convinced me.”
In the spring of 2012, Bowen found himself trying to convince LePage in a memo that he was loyal to the cause. The legislative session had just ended. LePage had suffered two significant policy defeats — a school choice bill and another that would have diverted public dollars to religious schools — despite Republican control of the Legislature.
Bowen ended the memo by addressing the concerns of LePage, relayed through his chief of staff, John McGough, that little had been accomplished. He also responded to the suggestion that a lack of staff turnover at the Department of Education indicated that Bowen had become too cozy with his staff and that he was reluctant to engage in a “shake-up” like the one by Commissioner Mary Mayhew in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bowen acknowledged that he hadn’t rid the department of as many people as Mayhew, but said he had quietly “fired or forced out” two senior staffers. Unlike Mayhew, he had only a few political appointees to jettison.
“I do have a very effective team over there that likes the direction we are going in,” Bowen wrote.
In an interview, Bowen declined to comment on the memo, saying it was difficult to recall the context in which it was written.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said it was inevitable that a change in administration would yield changes in agency staff. She said LePage had sought a “culture change” in all of state government, but there was room for different points of view.
Bennett would not comment on LePage’s apparent belief that Bowen had been influenced by certain staffers, citing personnel concerns. She said LePage was disappointed with the legislative session, but not with Bowen.
“Not reaching those achievements were not the result of a lack of effort,” Bennett said.
ON THE SAME PAGE WITH LePAGE
It may be difficult to find an education chief whose policy views align as closely with LePage’s as Bowen’s did.
LePage and his now-departed education chief were sometimes at odds on policy execution. But they shared the same goals, not to mention an affinity for political combat.
In June 2012, LePage issued a sharply worded statement to the state commission that approves charter schools. James Banks, the former head of the commission, had publicly complained that the panel was being rushed to approve the publicly funded charters. LePage urged the independent commission to do its work — quickly — or resign.
“Resignations encourages (sic) in the second sentence!” Bowen wrote in a June 2012 email to LePage’s senior staff, which had circulated a draft of the media statement. “I love working for this governor!”
The 44-year-old Bowen had a feisty reputation before becoming LePage’s education policy adviser, a spot he briefly held before the governor appointed him commissioner. The former teacher and state legislator had urged education reforms for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group that continues to influence LePage’s educational, economic and health care policies.
Bowen was brash and outspoken at the policy center, known for writing searing blog posts and newspaper opinion pieces about deficiencies in Maine’s education system and the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union. Bowen viewed the union, an influential organization aligned with the Democratic Party, as an enemy of change.
Bowen’s views didn’t change when he became commissioner. His emails to LePage staffers are peppered with references to “blasting” the union, “slapping them around.”
In late May 2012, LePage vetoed a bill that would have allowed public school teachers to earn additional pay if they received a national certification. The governor criticized the union in his veto message. He seemingly mocked the bill’s supporters, drawing a smiley face near his signature.
“Ouch, that’s going to leave a mark,” Bowen wrote in response. “Never seen a veto message like that!!”
ON OCCASION, DISSENTING OPINION
The hostilities are mutual. The union is one of the most vocal opponents of the LePage administration. In 2012, the union and the National Education Association were among the top spenders in an election that toppled the Republican majority in the Legislature. The union’s political action committee ran ads against LePage and his education policy, equating Maine’s 2011 charter school bill to selling student education to corporate interests.
Last year the union obtained more than 1,000 pages of Bowen’s emails and memos through a Freedom of Access Act request. It has since shared the documents with the Portland Press Herald and other news organizations.
Over the past several months, the documents have trickled into public view through news reports. A Press Herald report published in May documented how the governor initially planned to scrap the state’s school laptop program, a decision Bowen advised against. Another showed how LePage wanted to give Miss Maine USA a job promoting career and technical education at high schools, an idea that Bowen famously called “nuts.”
There are other moments when Bowen offered contrarian views, or steered the administration from trouble. In early 2012, the governor made a concerted effort to authorize charter schools. Bowen supported the mission but warned that some of the proposals may be “half-baked” and that the newly minted charter commission was just getting organized.
In December 2012, he warned administration officials not to participate in a meeting with Microsoft out of concern that it would look like the administration was influenced during a competitive request-for-proposals process for the state’s laptop business. Administration officials attended the meeting. Bowen did not.
Bowen also attempted to persuade LePage to curb his vehement criticism of school superintendents.
“He can’t keep blasting superintendents like this,” Bowen wrote in a May 14 email to Jonathan Nass, LePage’s education policy adviser. “He CAN say the (superintendent) associations opposed school choice, but we have good superintendents out there who we are going to alienate needlessly.”
It’s unclear if Bowen’s message ever reached LePage. If it did, the governor ignored it. In January, he accused some superintendents of having “a character flaw” because some were collecting a salary and a state retirement pension.
LePage’s criticism of superintendents is rooted in his belief that there are too many of them. He has called for one per county, while also cutting the number of school districts, a two-pronged approach designed to lower Maine’s high per-pupil education spending.
Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci had a similar view of the state’s high school administrative costs. It became the impetus for a controversial district consolidation plan fiercely opposed by rural districts, many of which were — and continue to be — represented by Republican lawmakers.
In a June 5, 2012, memo to LePage, Bowen agreed that there were too many superintendents but warned that slashing administrative costs would eliminate only $15 million of the state’s $2.1 billion education budget. If the administration wanted to cut $200 million or $300 million in education spending, he wrote, “we are simply going to have to close a lot of small schools.” It was a thorny political issue, Bowen wrote, but the previous administration had achieved closures through the state’s school construction process, forcing districts to regionalize before releasing state funds for new buildings.
The memo followed a series of exchanges between Bowen and Nass. LePage had demanded ways to reduce education spending. On May 14, LePage met with Bowen and Nass, detailing a list of complaints.
Later, Bowen emailed Nass, unsure of his directive.
“It is hard to track where he is going, even through the course of a single meeting,” Bowen wrote.
LePage remained focused on education spending. On June 4, he requested a briefing. Bennett, his spokeswoman, called it for the morning of June 5. She had second thoughts after anticipating that LePage wasn’t going to be happy with the results of the briefing; he had a public event scheduled later in the Hall of Flags honoring science, math and engineering students.
“Thinking about it a little more, can you update him after (the event)?” she wrote. “He needs to be in a good mood this morning.”
Bennett apparently made the right call. Photos of the Hall of Flags event show LePage smiling and playing along with the students.
His mood changed during the education briefing. On June 9, Bowen emailed Nass, saying he might take another swing at the memo on cutting costs.
“The risk is that he yells at me/us again on it,” he wrote.
Bowen, a former state legislator with a knack for policy details, appeared to find himself struggling to keep pace with the governor’s desires. But, he said, LePage’s door was always open to him.
“There was never a time when I asked to see the governor and he said ‘no,’ ” Bowen said.
Bennett said last week that the governor and Bowen had different styles, but they were aligned on the end result.
Bowen, she said, came from the Legislature, where deals are made and compromise was common. LePage, she said, had high expectations.
“He sets the bar very high,” Bennett said. “He often requests more than he knows he’s going to receive. But he does it for a reason.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: