Gov. LePage holds roundtable with Bethel area businesspeople
Gov. Paul LePage last week shared his views on education, the state budget, oil pipeline safety and other topics at a business roundtable at the Bethel Inn.
About 40 people turned out for the gathering, which lasted an hour and a half.
Much of the time was spent on education, and with SAD 44 Supt. Dave Murphy in the room, LePage joked that perhaps his security people should stay close.
The governor was critical of current educational practices in Maine and said new approaches are needed.
“The status quo is not helping our children,” he said. He said test scores have generally remained flat over the past two decades while other states have improved.
A strong advocate for charter schools, LePage told those gathered, “I believe your street address should not determine what school you go to.”
He cited Florida, where he said education has been improving since 1999 under changes implemented under Gov. Jeb Bush.
In addition to offering charter school options, said LePage, Florida grades its schools under a letter system, an approach also utilized in Indiana.
“Maine will do the same,” he said. (The grades were released yesterday, Wednesday.)
LePage added that in Maine, it’s not just poor districts that would get poor grades.
“It’s spread pretty evenly,” he said. Among criteria for grading are performance, progress and graduation rates.
LePage also said administrative costs for educating students in rural districts is increasing.
Florida, he said, has 56 school superintendents for 2.7 million students, while in Maine there are 127 full-time equivalent superintendents for 185,000 students.
Nationally, 2 percent of education costs go to administration, while in Maine it’s 4.5 percent, he said.
LePage also described an experience he had while visiting China. He said he told an education official that students here can be promoted without having reached a certain level of proficiency (“social promotion”)
“At the end of the year they haven’t learned anything, and they move on to the next year,” said LePage.
The Chinese official told him if that happened in his country, the teacher would be fired.
“It’s part of their job to make sure that if the kids are falling behind, a tutoring plan is set up between the school, the parents and the teacher,” said LePage.
He acknowledged there are differences between the countries, including the fact that the Chinese have fewer children per family. He also said that Chinese educators like some aspects of the American education system.
LePage also advocated for greater use of electronic education.
“One thing we can do that nobody in the Legislature wants to talk about, that’s being done in Finland, Canada, Hong Kong and Shang Hai, is virtual education. A teacher gives the class on video, and they have ed techs around the districts who work with the teachers.”
The video class is downloaded onto laptops, and students can revisit the lesson if they wish, he said.
Murphy was game.
“We want to do it, sign us up,” he said.
Responded LePage, “This is not the administration of the schools that’s the problem here. It’s the teachers’ unions. They don’t want virtual education because you can teach so many kids with far less people.”
Murphy said that most schools in rural areas have applied for grants for two-way audio-visual systems, under which students in one school can “sit in” on classes in another.
“We’re beginning to use that so that different schools participate at the high school level,” he said.
Commenting on LePage’s remarks as a whole, Murphy said, “Although we don’t agree on the finer points, I welcome the conversation.”
Murphy also wondered if there might be ways to provide some of the advantages LePage sees in charter schools within a public school setting. He agreed that education needs to move away from the status quo.
Tar sands, rail, budget
In a question and answer session, Seabury Lyon of Bethel expressed his concerns about possible oil spills in the Androscoggin River if the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line should reverse the flow of its pipeline to carry diluted bitumen (“tar sands”) from Montreal to Portland.
Noting he has a business next to the river, Lyon said he had tried to get insurance for such a circumstance, but could not.
He wondered what such businesses could do to protect themselves.
Speaking about pipelines generally, LePage replied it would be more likely for someone to be struck by lightning than be affected by an oil spill.
He said the amount of money that goes into monitoring pipelines for safety is “phenomenal.”
“I am more concerned about what is happening right now with oil on inferior rail – that is a problem,” he said.
LePage said he believes a balance can be found between caring for the environment and allowing for business expansion that would ensure prosperity.
Another railroad issue came up when Don Provencher of Gorham, N.H., a passenger rail advocate, asked about returning such service from Portland to Montreal and through Bethel.
LePage said his administration has had talks with rail companies and the province of Quebec on the issue. But, he said, the railroads that own the tracks “are not excited about looking at passenger rail.”
LePage also took time to express his frustration with the Maine Legislature over the current state budget process. Working to close an $800 million gap, his proposed biennial budget includes suspending state revenue sharing and shifting some costs for teacher retirement on to local school systems.
But, said LePage, legislators have recently pulled out the revenue sharing and teacher retirement pieces from the plan, and want to increase aid to education and expand Medicaid.
“They are working on a phenomenal tax increase,” he said.