June 20, 2018
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Focus on student performance

Paul Tong | BDN
Paul Tong | BDN
This artwork by Paul Tong relates to the backlash of budget cuts on education across the United States.
By Matt Jacobson, Special to the BDN

Maine people are getting cheated. Our education budgets are near America’s top, but our outcomes are near the bottom. We are not getting what we pay for, and worse, our children are not being prepared to succeed.

This is happening at all levels, not just K-12, but K-20. Our colleges are graduating too many students with degrees they cannot use in Maine, so they move away to live, pay taxes and contribute to the prosperity of some other state — an irrational and unsustainable situation.

If this happened with other state agencies, the people responsible for spending so much money and getting poor results would be held accountable. For example, if 25 percent of our road projects were never finished, but the contractors were still paid in full, it would be front-page news. By comparison, we have a very well funded school system for all Maine kids, but 25 percent drop out of high school. After that, only 25 percent of high school graduates receive a one-, two- or four-year degree within six years.

Maine parents and taxpayers have a history of working in our communities to find good ways to educate children. For example, school choice in towns that pay private-school tuition for their kids has been successful for more than a hundred years. Today, school systems across America are looking at Maine’s long-term success with this and are beginning to offer choices for their students.

Maine has tried other experiments too, such as buying laptop computers for middle- and high school students, or drastically reducing class sizes, but these ideas have not improved student performance. Other states are learning from these experiences, and they’re not following Maine’s example.

Evaluating public education can be frustrating because in an ideal world, there would be a direct, measurable link between school spending numbers and school performance numbers. Right now, Maine spends an average of more than $11,000 per student each year, but the test scores do not reflect this.

Maine needs to make fundamental changes immediately because student performance is not good enough. We are spending too much money, and quite frankly we can no longer afford it. The reality is that the next governor’s first budget will be about a billion dollars less than it is now, and education spending definitely will be reduced.

In this light, we cannot continue the same old ways that haven’t been working. Instead of raising taxes in the middle of the night or continuing the series of bit-by-bit cuts every few months, we must make fundamental changes that prioritize classroom performance and also bring school spending under control.

Maine must weigh every school policy and budget decision against improving student performance. The goal is to produce well-educated students who are ready to get good jobs here in Maine, and have the choice to stay in their home state.

If the jobs of the future include high-tech manufacturing, the best tourism industry in the world, innovative forest products development, sustainable energy R&D, plus becoming a center for international trade, we need to make sure our colleges offer the top degrees for professionals in these fields. Additional educational paths need to offer the technical and hands-on skills needed for these Maine careers in one- and two-year certificate and degree programs.

At the same time, we need tough mandates to make sure that Maine kids graduate high school, and are qualified to enroll and succeed in postsecondary programs. And because getting a high school degree is the minimum goal, Maine must begin by guaranteeing that middle schools and grade schools are teaching our youngest children the skills they need to succeed in and graduate high school — ready to concentrate on career-oriented studies.

I recruit companies to Maine for a living, and unfortunately, some people who consider moving their businesses here are concerned about being able to find enough skilled workers in the long term. It may look that way on paper, but the companies that relocate here learn to appreciate the legendary work ethic, creativity and genuine dedication of our residents.

We can do this. Compared to challenges Mainers have faced in the past, this one should be easy; because we all have the same goal and we know what is at stake. When all education policy and budgeting decisions are focused on improving student performance, and everything is tracked and measured against this goal, we will succeed and our kids will succeed, and we will get what we pay for.

Matt Jacobson is the president and chief executive officer of Maine & Company and a Republican candidate for governor.

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