Come to work, prepared to work whatever the work may be. It’s the Maine work ethic.

But Maine’s economy is in a long transition. For far too many residents, the jobs that once provided high wages with low education requirements have been replaced with low-skill, low-wage jobs. We have the will to work but not enough skilled labor to attract higher-wage employers. In short, Maine’s great work ethic needs an education upgrade.

There are exceptions. Recently, Idexx Laboratories of Westbrook announced a $50 million expansion with as many as 500 new jobs. Other Maine companies with global markets are showing signs of hiring activity as we crawl through the back end of the recession. To remain and grow in Maine, though, these value-added employers will need skilled workers.

For some, like Wright Express in South Portland, recruiting has been a struggle. With too few Maine applicants trained in information technology, the company is having to expand out of state. In better times, it could have lured qualified people to move to Maine. Today, too many would lose their shirts if they sold their devalued homes.

Mike Dubyak, CEO of Wright Express, is taking the long view. He chairs the University of Southern Maine board of visitors and is raising money for much-needed scholarships.

So, what needs to happen? Maine needs to build bench strength that starts in kindergarten and runs through postgraduate studies. We also need a change in public policy.

Another longtime champion of public education is David Flanagan, former CEO of Central Maine Power Co. He recently concluded a study of Maine’s elementary and secondary education statistics.

In a speech sponsored by the Portland Regional Chamber and the Muskie School of Public Service, Flanagan called for fundamental change in Maine’s education behemoth that, in total, commands nearly 50 percent of the state budget and as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of local property taxes.

His analysis was grounded on the following stubborn facts:

In 2006, Maine had 16 percent fewer students in K-12 than it did in 1979, yet the cost per student had grown by 451 percent during that period.

Maine spends 25 percent more per pupil than the national average, yet Maine’s test scores have dropped. According to the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, there is little or no positive correlation between school spending and test results.

Maine’s student-to-teacher ratio is about 11-to-1 while the ratio in similarly rural states is about 14-to-1, yet all those peer states have better student test scores than Maine. If Maine had a ratio of 14-to-1, education costs for personnel would be reduced by $400 million annually.

In 1980, teachers outnumbered support staff by a ratio of 2-to-1. By 2006, there were more nonteaching staff members than teachers in Maine schools.

Maine is ranked third in the nation for the percentage of students classified for special education. If we followed the national guidelines to determine special needs, Maine would dramatically reduce the amount of questionable one-on-one classroom support, with an estimated savings of $60 million.

Over the years, these troubling numbers demonstrate how policymakers in Augusta have failed students, teachers and taxpayers.

If teachers were given incentives to produce measurable results, it would free them to excel at their passion. The executive director of the teachers’ union acknowledges that many of their members want to leave teaching but are shackled to their jobs because of benefit eligibility requirements.

If that’s the case, then new policies, including out-placement services and suitable compensation, are needed to release burned-out teachers and redundant administrators.

New policies also should encourage those with passion and talent to stay, excel and be compensated for their results. The joy of teaching is witnessing progress and knowing that you have kindled the lamp of lifelong learning.

Flanagan’s own life story includes one of the most powerful predictors of academic success: parental involvement. Flanagan is one of eight children who attended public schools in Bangor and Portland. During a memorial service for his mother, those gathered heard stories of Connie Flanagan’s well-beaten path to the Portland schools along Stevens Avenue.

She engaged in and supported the education of her children. The measurable outcome? A lawyer, two doctors, a nurse, an artist, a craftsperson, a veterinarian and, gratefully, a teacher.

Students, teachers, parents and community employers need the support of a rational and affordable education policy. Flanagan’s speech, titled “A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” serves as a timely call to action for everyone who aspires to serve us in Augusta.

What do you think and what are you willing to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy.