I often tell my students, “you get what you give.” In these cases, I most likely am giving them a pep talk to ramp up their levels of pride, effort or engagement around learning. But after reading Gov. Paul LePage’s recent comments on educational spending, I would like to pivot my take on this adage. When investing in education, you also get what you give.
Recently, the governor suggested a drastic reduction in the number of school superintendents in Maine. He aims to reduce the number of superintendents from 147 to — as he put it — “about a dozen.” These cuts would fall under his proposed education budget, which is $20 million less than what was spent in the last fiscal cycle.
There is no other state with comparable populations and demographics that has this low a number of superintendents. It seems that his proposal is an arbitrary and unrealistic means of reducing costs. It would surely lead to instability and lack of direction in Maine’s education system.
Strong leadership is essential for improving outcomes for schools and students. A superintendent oversees everything in a district, including curriculum, staffing, parent and community concerns, transportation, technology and diminishing budgets — to name the most obvious. I have taught under six different superintendents. I have sat on superintendent interview panels, and I have attended numerous leadership conferences targeting professional development for local and state education chiefs.
Through these experiences, I have found that most school leaders loosely fall into three categories: those who manage, those who have vision,and those who can skillfully do both. When a superintendent has the latter, school cultures improve and staff morale is bolstered, and as a result the needle moves for students.
LePage has repeatedly asserted that we spend too much on education. But in the 13 years I have taught in Maine, I have watched as superintendents grappled with yearly cuts to programs and staff at the expense of student needs. Too many of our schools are short of social workers, early childhood programs and technology. Schools across the state are in need of structural improvements and updated facilities. Most tragically, the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch continues to increase — currently 45.6 percent — and schools continue to provide a wide net of support for them. These items are costly, yet it is unconscionable to prioritize saving money over meeting the needs of our children. Certainly eliminating the very leaders who have the scope and skills to address these needs is not the path to take.
As the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year, I was a member of LePage’s Blue Ribbon Commission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance. The commission included a cross section of community leaders, superintendents, higher education representatives, legislators and two teachers. The work of the commission included evaluating the funding formula for Maine’s schools and raising achievement — particularly for low-performing students.
As a practicing classroom teacher, it was challenge to get to these meetings. I did not want to leave my students, and it was difficult to find a substitute. I had to leave my husband in charge of my children. I paid for the tolls, the gas and the necessary Starbucks venti black coffee out of pocket. I did so because it felt important to be a voice in a forum that could potentially affect students from Cape Elizabeth to Calais. The commission’s conversations were thoughtful and informative, and I believed everyone at the table had the best intentions for Maine. We heard presentations on Maine’s funding formula (fair); on Maine’s economy (concerning); on educational initiatives aimed at raising achievement and graduation rates (hopeful); and on rising numbers of students living in poverty (troubling).
The commission presented the governor with a list of specific recommendations. These recommendations are public record, and they included directions to incentivize the regionalization of programs and districts where it makes sense. But nowhere in the recommendations did we suggest or discuss reducing the number of superintendents to 12. I question why so many of us spent our time, money, and energy preparing for and participating in meetings that were ultimately ignored. Decisions in education are about children, and, thus, they are too complex and high stakes to be treated in this manner.
In a state whose population is shrinking, we have a great opportunity to shift this decline by revitalizing our schools and reminding families that Maine is a great place to raise kids. Rather than making more sweeping cuts in education, we would do better to invest in building Maine’s capacity for visionary leaders that will ensure that our schools continue on a steep trajectory of continuous improvement. As I said before, you get what you give.
Talya Edlund is a fifth-grade teacher at Cape Elizabeth Middle School and the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year.