AUGUSTA, Maine — Following up on a campaign promise, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday issued an order that takes a first step toward giving more Maine students the option of a five-year high school education.
The governor’s executive order will create a 19-member task force to study and set the stage for changes. The governor chooses 15 members, representing K-12 and post-secondary education, teachers and education associations. The other four members will be legislators.
The task force will survey existing early college opportunities in Maine’s high schools, review efforts in other states and countries, and their costs, and make recommendations for funding with existing resources in Maine.
LePage said that while Maine has early college opportunities in place in high schools, it lacks a systematic approach to making them available to students.
“We need to give students some clear options that will encourage them to enter post-secondary education and give them the start they need,” he said.
During last year’s campaign for governor, LePage floated the idea of having high school students take introductory-level college courses so that in five years of high school, they could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree, or two years of transferable college credits, all for free.
The proposal was part of LePage’s campaign report “Turning the Page: New Ideas to Get Maine Working.” The report said the proposal for an extra year of high school was borrowed from a similar program in North Carolina. The nonprofit Early College High School Initiative, which promotes systems that blend high school and college, says it has helped bring such offerings to nearly 30 states.
LePage’s education commissioner, Steven Bowen, said that Maine does not envision a program as extensive as North Carolina’s, where some high schools were built on college campuses.
Instead, the task force looks toward getting a “snapshot” or survey of where opportunities for college courses in high school already exist in Maine, how they work, and what can be done at the state level to make such opportunities available to more students.
Bowen said that during a “listening tour” in which he visited school districts across the state earlier this year, he learned that a patchwork of programs already existed.
“But we just didn’t have a good sense from this level what’s out there,” said Bowen. He expects the study to turn up several different models of how a program can be run. LePage’s central goal, Bowen said, is to make college courses available to more Maine students.
Bowen said the state faces a serious problem with fewer Maine high school students going on to some form of post-secondary education. That concern is shared by several lawmakers.
“I think this is the governor trying to fulfill a campaign promise,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a member of the Education Committee. “I don’t believe this will have the game-changing effect that we need here in Maine for education.”
Alfond said the state cannot afford a new and costly program when it is underfunding education. He said the state needs to adequately fund schools now so that they can prepare students for post-secondary education and said to meet the statutory goal of the state paying for 55 percent of the cost local schools would cost another $400 million.
Bowen said there may need to be changes in law or policy, but he does not see a proposal calling for major new expenditures.
“There is no money, that is not going to happen,” he said. “ But maybe we can come up with some recommendations that can better coordinate what is happening and save some money.”
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, is the co-chairman of the Education Committee. He said many on the panel have been working informally to model early higher education programs. A longtime vocational instructor, he said the panel must look broadly at what is meant by post-secondary education.
“I got a report recently about the thousands of jobs we have going unfilled because people don’t have the right skills.” he said, “and I look at the tens of thousands of people out of work. We have to do more training that is tailored to the jobs that are out there and not just college or two-year degree programs.”
Langley said many needed skills for good-paying jobs can be obtained in a yearlong training program that could flow from a high school diploma, possibly at the same school building.
“He’s absolutely right and we have to look at that,” Bowen said. “I just paid $75 an hour to have my lawn tractor fixed. Maybe I am in the wrong line of work.”
The governor said that in less than a decade, nearly 60 percent of jobs in Maine will require at least some amount of college education. But if more students don’t complete high school and earn degrees, “we won’t have the work force required to meet the needs of a 21st century technology- and knowledge-driven economy,” he said.
The administration also sees early college courses as an advantage to students in designing career paths while they’re in high school. Students pursuing technical fields could, for example, clear away some required courses before delving into their main area of study.
Bowen hopes the task force can be named and start work in August. He says they have a lot to do to have recommendations for the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1.
Mal Leary of Capitol News Service contributed to this report.