In this Aug. 31, 2022 file photo, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage talks with Rev. Darwin Vail (left) and Rose Masse at a campaign stop in Cumberland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage laid out his education agenda on Monday, melding a sweeping voucher proposal with a long-held desire to consolidate schools and following national Republicans in bemoaning “woke” teaching.

It amounted to the former two-term governor’s most detailed policy proposal to date in his campaign with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Education was one of LePage’s pet issues during his eight years in office, yet his biggest reform ideas went nowhere aside from when he and fellow Republicans enshrined charter schools in 2011, the first year of his tenure.

Schools have become a flashpoint in national campaigns. More than a dozen Republican-led states have passed legislation seeking to limit discussion on race or sexual and gender identity in K-12 schools. While LePage’s plan is most notable for major reforms, it also looks to address those social issues through recommendations to school systems.

“Maine needs a Parents Bill of Rights,” he said at an Augusta news conference. “It is time our schools focused on getting back to the basics — math, science, reading.”

His plan will run into many of the same problems that have plagued state reforms, particularly a strong history of local control over school administration and curriculum. In 2007, former Gov. John Baldacci signed a historic consolidation bill into effect that was met with resistance in many cities and towns. Without Republican control of Augusta, LePage’s plan will likely go nowhere.

LePage’s biggest proposal is a “true voucher program” that would allow parents to take their shares of state education funding and use it to send their children to private or religious schools, putting Maine among a group of 16 states that have voucher programs, according to the Education Commission of the States.

This kind of program would come with complexity. While $18,000 was spent per student in Maine during the 2020-2021 school year, that figure includes teacher retirement and municipal expenses, meaning vouchers would likely be smaller. Per-pupil spending also differs widely by district, with Cape Elizabeth spending $20,600 compared with $16,600 in Bangor.

In 2013, LePage sought to create one for low-income students that was opposed by Democrats. They generally oppose voucher programs by arguing they would erode the quality of K-12 education. Mills is campaigning on being the first governor to boost the state’s share of basic school aid to a statutory goal of 55 percent.

Her campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Democrats and their allies seized on the back half of LePage’s tenure, which was marked by upheaval in the education department and a string of temporary commissioners

That amounted to “chaos,” Grace Leavitt, the president of the Democratic-aligned Maine Education Association, a teachers union, said in a statement that noted LePage had tried to advance some of the same ideas in the past.

“Our public schools work best when parents and educators understand the real issues our students are facing, and we come together to collaborate on what children need to learn,” Leavitt said. 

The former governor told reporters on Monday that he would hold to 55 percent education funding, except he wants to provide more funding to school districts that choose to consolidate their operations. That would expand on a relatively small incentive program for school collaboration that LePage rolled out toward the end of his tenure.

Much of his “bill of rights” proposal leaned heavily on recommendations to schools. One of the speakers who introduced LePage was a mother who was upset about a poster put up by a civil rights team in her 11-year-old’s school that discussed sexual orientations.

LePage would advise districts to have a basic curriculum and encourage districts to make what they are teaching easily accessible online, as well as stream, record and post all school board meetings.

He criticized Mills’ “woke” education policy, including a video that was made by a kindergarten teacher to explain transgender identity to young students, saying doctors can make mistakes in assigning gender identity. The video was removed from a state module after it gained attention, with Mills saying it was not age appropriate.

But LePage made clear that many of his ideas were only recommendations for school districts to follow, saying he would not force local officials to do anything.

“I’m just going to advise school boards that the curriculum is going to be in teaching the basics,” he said.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...