'Flipping the Curve'

New Maine Education Commissioner Steven Bowen - Maine.gov photo

At the Governors' meeting in Washington on Monday, probably no one welcomed Bill Gates' gift basket book, Stretching the School Dollar,  more than Governor LePage.

Indeed, with every state executive facing down his own little bit of Madison, who would want to disbelieve that, to flip the achievement-spending curves, all we need to do to beat the test scores of the pesky Finns and Singaporeans is fire the bottom 15% of the nation's teachers and convey the savings as merit bonuses to the remaining stalwarts in compensation for the minor inconvenience of larger class sizes?

Then, one presumes, a similar supply-side subroutine could be turned loose on the medical field by retiring the bottom tier of doctors (as rigorously evidenced by -say- patient mortality) subsequently realizing both a dramatic uptick in longevity and a decimation of expense.

Plainly still jacked from this news at the conclusion of his own testimony at Wednesday's Appropriations hearing, Governor LePage sought to reassure Representative Fredette, whose teaching spouse stands to lose benefits under the Governor's budget, that teachers who survive the performance cut will enjoy some spoils.

"We are trying to identify all the good teachers in the state of Maine and to make sure they are paid at a higher wage," LePage said, adding that “those who aren't successful in the classroom" will be invited to "take on a new career."

A half hour later, Steve Bowen was at the microphone before the Education Committee for his confirmation hearing. But anyone hoping for MHPC-sanctioned bureaucracy-slimming talking points would have been disappointed.

Regarding a prospective organization chart for his own model DoE, a department he regularly skewered for incompetence as recently as last summer, Bowen said he believed that reorganization under previous administrations had left the Department understaffed by perhaps as many as a hundred positions.

Bowen suggested that he understands his charge as Commissioner to require not only the vision to move the state toward substantial educational change but also a strategic diplomacy necessary to rebuild the damaged partnerships between the state and the special abilities of local school districts.

Countering his lack of managerial experience, Bowen assertively presented what amounted to a specific business case to sharpen DoE operations, build teacher quality, increase high school graduation, streamline college transition, challenging the Committee to rebut any parts in which they might deem him incapable.

All in all, Bowen hit the right notes, representing himself as a competent consensus builder on a grave mission to make things work better for the greater good. "The vast majority of teachers," he said, "only need training and support to get better. Only a very few just shouldn't be there."

So, with that message effectively fashioned, one could picture him wincing during the following testimony as Eliot Cutler, the moderate gorilla, thunderously commended Bowen, comparing him with union-baiters MIchelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and assuring the committee that Bowen would "shake up the system …maybe even turn it upside down."

In the end, the only sharp opposing public testimony came from the right. Kenneth Capron from Portland, who ran last spring on an anti-Muslim platform in a failed primary campaign against a Somali immigrant, objected that Bowen's advantage as Governor LePage's senior advisor had allowed the nominee to beat out competing resumes, including one that Capron had submitted from Bruno Behrend an advocate from the Heartland Institute, an organization dedicated to debunking global warming, promoting private charters and advocating for school vouchers.

As Capron's own organization, the Maine Center for Constitutional Studies (which fundraises by raffling off assault weapons), successfully lobbied in January to have Governor LePage proclaim a state 'School Choice Week', one is left uncertain about the solidity of certain alliances in conservative school policy.