How to keep our young people in Maine

The Governor and I agree on one thing – Maine needs stronger schools if we are going to attract and keep businesses and families in our beautiful state. At the very least our buildings need to serve the educational needs of students. We also need outstanding academic programming, high-quality professional development for teachers, fully staffed Art and Music and World Language programs, and competitive salaries and working conditions for teachers. These are the basic ingredients of excellent schools, and we should prioritize making sure all schools in Maine offer them.

In a state with a declining population and a preponderance of elderly residents, and a world where picking up a family and moving to another state is a viable option, we cannot afford mediocre schools. Unfortunately, at the present time, while there are some schools that offer the ingredients which combine to make excellent schools, many schools in Maine are missing most of these ingredients of excellence.

Jake Bleiberg’s June 24 story in the Bangor Daily News highlights the poor condition of four of Portland’s elementary schools – Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth – and relates unsuccessful efforts dating back two decades to have the schools renovated. In this country we are unfortunately accustomed to hearing about grossly neglected school buildings in certain neighborhoods in big urban centers – what a shame that Portland should join these ranks. The article describes some serious problems – no space for Special Education classes, leaking roofs, overcrowded classrooms, temporary mobile trailers standing in for permanent classrooms, and an inflexible, ineffective system for dealing with these building problems. Any teacher will tell you that the kinds of problems Bleiberg details invariably have a negative effect on student learning, yet Portland is far from the only district in Maine with seriously inadequate school buildings.

Additionally, state-wide, we have only a handful of districts that offer the other ingredients which together form a top quality education. Some districts provide intellectually high-level professional development for teachers but many have practically eliminated the professional development line from the budget; a very few schools boast equipped performance spaces and fully staffed arts classes; some primary and middle school aged children are learning World Languages while most are not; teachers in some districts are paid $10,000 more annually than in neighboring districts; some high school students can choose from a dozen advanced placement courses while others attend schools that offer none at all.

Many of our towns run the real risk of gradually losing families who don’t perceive the schools as adequate. For the good of our communities we need to increase funding at the state level for our schools so that districts can provide the ingredients needed for an outstanding, equitable education for all. In recent years Maine has pushed the burden of paying the costs of education further and further on local taxpayers. It is time for the State to live up to the demands of Mainers expressed in a referendum in 2004 that the State fund the cost of education for students at the 55% level. This would help many districts cover the costs of programs needed by students.
We also need to allow districts to appeal if they believe the state funding formula is unfair to them due to particular conditions in their districts, such as coastal districts that might hold extensive water property and at the same time have a high poverty rate.

The reason some schools offer the ingredients for an excellent education while most do not is primarily inequity in funding. Some schools are located in districts where local taxes provide comfortably for the needs of the students and where wealthy residents donate generously to schools, however most are located in districts that have a hard time providing for the basic educational needs of their clients.

The State of Maine should prioritize leveling the playing field for Maine’s students. We should not have some schools that have waited twenty years for renovations while others boast college-worthy performance spaces and budgets. Maine needs every young person currently in school to grow up with the background of an excellent education. Our best hope is that our young people will decide to stay in this state when they become adults, enjoy our excellent quality of life, and contribute their energy to helping us solve our economic and environmental problems.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.