September 11, 2013

Bowen: Despite battles, Maine schools show progress

Maine's departing education chief says politics have cast a shadow over positive innovations under way in Maine.

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — Maine's education system is moving in the right direction, the state's schools chief said Wednesday as his tenure wound down, adding that the governor's administration will continue working to advance the sweeping education policy changes he spearheaded.

click image to enlarge

In this 2011 file photo, departing state education commissioner Stephen Bowen.

Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen steps down this week to work at a national nonprofit organization. During his time in the job, has clashed with the Democratic-led Legislature and teachers unions on contentious policies including charter schools and an A through F grading system for schools. But he said during an interview with The Associated Press that the political wrangling in Augusta often overshadows the progress going on in classrooms.

"I get that there's some controversy there," said Bowen, who joined Gov. Paul LePage's administration in 2011. "We've pushed a little harder than makes some people comfortable, but there are really, really good things going on in schools and there is really lots of new thinking, lots of innovation."

Bowen is leaving the administration to join the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Chief State School Officers, where he will help other state implement education policies. An acting commissioner has not yet been named.

He said he doesn't expect that the administration will introduce many big new education policies in the next legislative session, citing the challenge of working with the Democratic-controlled Legislature. He said the administration is focused on expanding and improving policies already in place, like charter schools and teacher evaluations.

But even that might be difficult for Bowen's successor. Democrats have shot down legislation backed by the department to change the funding formula for charter schools, to raise the cap on the number of charter schools and to put in place rules for the teacher and principal evaluation systems that schools are expected to be using by 2015. Democrats have bashed the expansion of charter schools, saying it strips funding away from traditional districts, and they have said that Bowen's A through F grading system penalizes poor districts.

"It was almost hyper-partisan," Bowen said of the legislative session, pointing his proposal to spread the burden of charter school funding to all districts rather than just the districts that send students to charters. "We came up with what we thought was a better model ... and I thought that at the end of the day I could sit in some offices over there and we could hash things out and come out with something and we didn't."

Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, who has clashed with Bowen on the school grading system and teacher evaluations, said that while he and Bowen disagreed on several issues, they were still able to have a vigorous and respectful debate.

"Going forward, Maine needs to strengthen our public schools," Alfond said in a statement. "We can do that by adequately funding our schools so that innovation can occur in our classrooms, providing opportunities for teachers to get the training they need and hold them accountable to those standards."

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