SOUTH PORTLAND — Democratic candidate for governor Libby Mitchell announced her plans for improving Maine’s education system Thursday during a press conference at Southern Maine Community College.

Mitchell, one of five candidates vying for the state’s top elected position, premised her proposals on the fact that improving education will reap benefits for Maine and help the state recover from the recession. That, said Mitchell, will lead to more jobs and the end of a revenue slide at the state level that has necessitated deep cuts to services in the past few years.

A policy committee co-chaired by Steve Rowe, Maine’s former attorney general who lost to Mitchell in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor, helped Mitchell develop her plan.

“This was not about good sound bites and not about politics,” said Rowe, who was a vocal proponent of early childhood education during his primary campaign. “It was about the challenges facing Maine’s education system.”

Mitchell’s “Education as an Economic Engine” plan includes the following:

ä Extending pre-kindergarten services to every school district in Maine. Mitchell said 99 of Maine’s 218 school districts offer a pre-kindergarten program. “We can’t have enough preschool education for our children,” said Mitchell.

ä Providing grants to high school graduates to help pay for their first year of college with the intent of increasing the number of Maine residents with college degrees, which now stands at 37 percent among people ages 25 to 64.

Mitchell said this initiative will help increase that average to 47 percent — the New England average. Mitchell proposes paying for this program and the pre-kindergarten expansion with a partnership in which the state would match private-sector donations with state government funds.

Mitchell proposes to generate revenue to pay for these proposals by negotiating a better deal for the state to operate liquor stores. “[The state liquor contract] is a state asset, and it’s my suggestion to use that asset to invest in Maine people,” said Mitchell.

ä Expanding the Jobs for Maine Graduates program to every high school in Maine. In the program, students work with a specialist on issues ranging from job attainments to leadership and personal skills.

ä Instituting a set of benchmarks that narrow the focus of teachers and streamline state and federal requirements already in place, such as those in No Child Left Behind and the Maine Learning Results.

Asked during the press conference if this constitutes another layer of mandates that teachers and students must adhere to, Mitchell said it isn’t. “We’re not creating another level of anything,” she said. “We have a lot more authority at the state level. We can make those mandates work for Maine.”

Mitchell’s Republican opponent, Paul LePage, criticized her education plan earlier in the day, laughing out loud when a reporter asked about it.

“It’s the same old, same old: 35 years of failed policies,” he said, adding that he plans to release his own education proposals early next week. Mitchell defended herself and accused LePage and other Republicans of having a “gloom and doom” attitude when it comes to Maine students.

“Maine students continue to achieve at the national average, but the rest of the pack is catching up,” she said. “This plan is new. Maine did not cause the national recession, but Maine is well-positioned to pull out of it if we stop denying ourselves.”

Mitchell plans to present policy proposals on energy and the environment and health care over the next two weeks.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.