Pledging to increase funding for education by $75 million, create several magnet high schools and better align education with economic development, independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler released a detailed plan Tuesday that he says will position Maine well for the future.

“States that are doing well economically are almost always the states that consistently have made investments in education, from early childhood through elementary and high school, to post high school and beyond throughout (their) citizens’ working lives,” Cutler said in prepared remarks. “We know that a skilled and educated workforce increasingly will be the driver of where businesses are started, where they will relocate or expand, and where they will grow.”

Cutler announced his plan Tuesday at events in Bangor and Portland. It was the fifth in a series of detailed policy rollouts from Cutler, who has been seeking for weeks now to drive debates with his opponents – incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud – on policy issues.

If elected, Cutler said he would invest in early childhood education, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and in new alternative schools, specifically three new magnet high schools that would give students more targeted opportunities.

The magnet schools would be located on University of Maine System campuses. Under Cutler’s plan, UMaine-Machias would host a marine and environmental sciences magnet school; the University of Southern Maine would focus on creative arts and tourism; and UMaine-Presque Isle would offer an agriculture and food sciences curriculum.

CHALLENGE GRANTS FOR SCHOOLS

In April, Cutler released a tax reform plan that would reduce property taxes by increasing sales taxes and free up an estimated $185 million annually for municipal revenue sharing, $75 million of which would go directly to education.

Up to $65 million of that would be used to create a system of challenge grant programs: one for early childhood, to provide more preschool opportunities that ensure children are ready for kindergarten; one for extra help, or to improve literacy and math skills specifically for low-income students; and one to recruit and train highly effective teachers. The other $10 million would be used to help create the magnet schools.

Cutler also talked about making college more affordable for young Mainers. He said one of the best ways to do that is to adopt a “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” plan, which gives students the option of attending public two- or four-year colleges tuition-free in exchange for paying a small percentage of their income for about 20 years into a state fund.

He said the state would need to borrow money to get such a plan started, but it would pay for itself and become self-sustaining over time.

CRITICISM OF OPPONENTS’ IDEAS

Cutler said his ideas are better than what his opponents have to offer.

“One believes that giving schools letter grades but no resources will somehow shame lower-performing schools into doing better,” he said, referring to LePage’s A-F grading system, which was rolled out last year by the state Department of Education and grades each school on student achievement.

“The other (opponent) hides behind empty, ‘feel good’ slogans and unfunded promises,” he said, referring to Michaud.

Michaud’s campaign released a statement that didn’t mention Cutler, but instead targeted LePage. Michaud and LePage have been running neck and neck in most public opinion polls, with Cutler trailing.

“For 3½ years, Gov. LePage has turned his back on education with failed policies that demoralize our students and our teachers, which is why I made education a top priority in my Maine Made business and investment plan, which focuses on improving our education system from early childhood and pre-K all the way up to higher education at our universities and community colleges,” Michaud’s statement said.

One of his education ideas, announced this spring, is to offer free tuition for all sophomores in the university system. Another is to create a grant program to encourage enrollment in Maine’s community college system.

LEPAGE CAMPAIGN DEFENDS GRADING

Brent Littlefield, senior campaign adviser to LePage, said education is the reason the governor was able to escape poverty and homelessness at a young age. He also defended the LePage administration’s grading system.

“That is why he proposed an increase in K-12 education funding in his very first budget,” Littlefield said. “Under Gov. LePage, Maine has started making strides to offer creative new programs to ensure our kids get the best education possible. Parents have new tools to help struggling schools to succeed, including opening up schoolwide evaluations, long locked in file cabinets in Augusta, so parents can see them.”

Many of LePage’s education reform efforts have failed to get support from lawmakers and were almost universally opposed by the teachers’ union.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell