The first students to graduate from one of Maine’s fledgling public charter schools heard from an unusual voice at their commencement ceremony on Friday: Senate President and outspoken opponent of charter schools Justin Alfond (D-Portland).
The speaking event followed a public spat between Alfond and Republican Gov. Paul LePage, which began when the Senate President attacked a different public charter school, the Portland-based Baxter Academy for Science and Technology, and was arranged at the last minute.
The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MEANS) at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield sent out a media advisory announcing their commencement ceremony on July 26 – one day before the Bangor Daily News published Alfond’s disparaging remarks about the Baxter.
MEANS’ media advisory contained no mention of Alfond; the release noted only two speakers: “The media and members of the public are welcome to attend the graduation, which will include an address by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and a keynote speech from the acclaimed author and graduate of Goodwill-Hinckley Bernd Heinrich.”
Six days later – following a public back-and-forth between Alfond and LePage – MaineToday Media ran a story about MEANS upcoming commencement in which it noted Alfond would be a graduation speaker.
“We were thrilled that both President Alfond and Commissioner Bowen could be there for the event,” said Rebecca Pollard, a spokesperson for MEANS.
Pollard said she did not know how Alfond wound up speaking at the graduation ceremony despite not being mentioned in the press release just one week earlier.
It would have been easy enough for Alfond to pull some strings and land a speaking opportunity, though. The Harold Alfond Foundation, named after Alfond’s grandfather, donated $10.85 million to the Maine Community College System and to Good Will-Hinkley in 2012. Not only has his family been very generous to the school, Alfond and MEANS Executive Director Glenn Cummings see eye to eye on state and national politics.
Cummings served as a Democrat in Maine’s House of Representatives from 2000 to 2008, including one term as a Majority Leader and another as Speaker of the House. According to Federal Election Commission records, Cummings has donated money to President Barack Obama’s super PAC, Obama for America, as well as the Maine Democratic State Committee.
But no matter how he ended up speaking, doing so made political sense for Alfond, whose opposition to charter schools may have gone too far with his borderline-threatening comments about Baxter Academy.
“Baxter is a new entity in the city of Portland and you would think that they would be strategic about who they’re partnering with,” Alfond ominously told BDN reporter Christopher Cousins. “The Maine Heritage Policy Center is one of the most extreme organizations in the state of Maine… It’s a very disappointing reality that Baxter is partnering with the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”
Alfond’s decision to bring Baxter Academy and MEANS into his own political battles follows a legislative session in which he led Democratic lawmakers in an unprecedented crusade against public charter schools. The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC), of which The Maine Wire is part, has been integral to the charter school movement in Maine and lobbied successfully for the passage of charter school legislation. With that law barely two years old, Alfond and Democrats in the 126th Legislature launched a death-by-a-thousand lashes campaign aimed at defunding, over-regulating and pestering charter schools out of existence.
A poll conducted earlier this year by MHPC and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found strong demand for educational options beyond traditional government-run schools.
Maine Wire Reporter