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LePage’s education plan calls for public funding for private schools and criticizes "woke agenda"

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, campaigns at gun shop, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Gray, Maine.

Following a national trend by other Republican governors, former Gov. Paul LePage on Monday unveiled the outline of a parents bill of rights. The sweeping initiative includes a full expansion of Maine's school voucher program to include all students, as well as proposals that he said would fix a school system mismanaged by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Democrats say the proposal would allow the state to dictate curricula to local school districts and gut funding for public education.

Parents bill of rights proposals have been embraced by Republican governors across the country as they seek to tap parent frustration over pandemic school closures and conservative angst over the teaching of race, gender and LGBTQ issues.

And on Monday, LePage tore into Mills for pushing what he called "an extreme woke agenda" instead of math, science and reading at an event at the Buker Community Center in Augusta.

"Our curriculums need to focus on teaching our children how to think, not what to think," he said.

LePage vowed to overhaul state education curricula standards to focus on what he says are the basics.

While some Republican governors have used similar moves to restrict teachings of race and LGBTQ issues, LePage said he wouldn't big-foot curriculum decisions by local districts even as he repeatedly criticized instruction about gender identity.

"It is child abuse to take a 14-year-old and try to put him into a transgender reform without the parents' knowledge. The parents have to be part of the solution," he said.

It's not clear exactly who LePage was referencing, but his remarks were part of a common theme: That public schools are indoctrinating students in liberal views and their parents are left in the dark.

To fight this, LePage said his plan provides parents a greater window into what's being taught: school curriculum would be posted online, notifying parents of all "sensitive" materials, and better digital access to school board meetings.

"My thought is, what's not transparent?" said Steve Bailey, president of the Maine School Management Association, a state federation of school boards and superintendents.

Steve Bailey is president of the Maine School Management Association, a state federation of school boards and superintendents.

School board meetings are public proceedings and often live-streamed.

And Bailey says parents can already request and view student curricula through their local schools, teachers and administrators.

"There's a very active process of the attempt to make things known to folks," he said.

That includes access to specific information if the parent wants it, and exemptions from specific teachings if the parent requests them.

Bailey also questioned how LePage would pay for his proposal to expand Maine's voucher program to all students.

Currently, Maine law allows students in certain towns that don't have their own elementary or high schools to receive tuition to attend a school of their choosing.

That applies to roughly 5,000 students now, according to state data, but LePage wants to expand eligibility and allow parents to take their share of state education funding — about $18,000 per year — and use it to send their children to private or religious schools.

"I honestly believe that if you brought competition to our school systems they would get better real quick," LePage said.

The longtime conservative argument that using taxpayer funding to increase access to private schools will improve public schools is hotly contested.

Skeptics like Bailey argue that it siphons money and resources from public education.

And Maine Democratic Party chairman Drew Gattine said that inserting the concept into a parents bill of rights shows that LePage is using the issue to further his attack on public education funding while Gov. Mills continues to direct state money to local districts and boosting teacher pay.

"You have to put what he's saying up against his record when he was governor for eight years," Gattine said. "And his record with respect to education for eight years was a failure when it comes to funding schools, supporting teachers, supporting students."

LePage has previously expressed support for expanding school vouchers, but the proposal unveiled Monday was more dramatic than previous ones.

He also expressed a desire to revisit school district consolidation, an initiative he failed to advance as governor and one that Democratic Gov. John Baldacci tried with mixed results in the early 2000s because of concerns over loss of local control.

Democrats repeated those on Monday when they characterized LePage's parents bill of rights as a state attempt to override community decisions about public education

In a recent interview, Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents the state teachers' union described Republican parents bill of rights proposals as a Trojan horse to advance attacks on public education.

"This is not aimed at parental involvement. It's a misnomer at best and very misleading. And it's just creating a wedge between the parent-teacher relationship," Leavitt said.

The Mills campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

For disclosure, most of Maine Public's newsroom employees are represented by a union affiliated with the Maine Education Association.