March 7, 2013

LePage forum to highlight Florida-style school reforms

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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