Writing or talking about the cost of education is a difficult task when, as parents, you’ve met with your children’s teachers and seen their engagement and enthusiasm for the work they do.

The test my wife and I use in evaluating a teacher is simple: “Does he or she know our kid?” In other words, is the teacher connecting and holding the student accountable in their learning relationship?

In our experience, the vast majority have succeeded and achieved good results for their effort.

While some teachers we’ve met have seen the barn and all but retired in place, the ones who persist make the work their passion.

A case in point is my own junior high football and track coach. Although we hadn’t seen or spoken to one another for a couple of decades, we recently had a long conversation over breakfast.

His enthusiasm for teaching was undiminished, even in retirement. He always knew his students, engaged in their learning and helped shape their character.

After our breakfast, he handed me a history reading assignment. Good teachers never quit.

There are others like him, but, as with any organization, there are some at the other end of the spectrum — people who are not well-suited to teaching or have simply run out of steam.

If they could, they might move on to other work, but they are stuck, handcuffed to their jobs by health care benefits and retirement plans.

They also are protected by a seniority system that rewards longevity rather than students’ outcomes. That approach will not help improve the critical measures of education in Maine.

According to the Reinventing Maine Government report written by Envision Maine and commissioned by GrowSmart Maine, the state’s metrics for evaluating kindergarten through 12th-grade education suggest there’s work to be done if Maine students are going to succeed in a global workplace.

According to the report, however, the problem does not appear to be lack of spending.

It said, “In 2008, Maine spent $2 billion, in combined state and local dollars, on K-12 education. That worked out to $13,513 per student — 25 percent more than the national average of $10,259 per student, and more per student than all but nine other states. During the last few years, eighth-grade math scores plummeted from first place nationally a decade ago to 24th place in 2007.

“In 2009, only 37 percent of Maine’s eighth-graders tested as ‘proficient’ in reading — which means 63 percent failed to meet standards. That same year, only 36 percent of our fourth-graders tested ‘proficient’ in reading.”

Our current economic hardship is an opportunity for change. But whatever changes occur through state and national policy, it is imperative that they be effective.

Among the first challenges is getting and keeping the best teachers in the classrooms.

The use of test scores or subjective evaluations has long been opposed by teachers’ unions as arbitrary and a threat to job security.

That paradigm is changing, however. In School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland-North Yarmouth), a recently negotiated contract allows the district to lay off teachers who are deficient and unresponsive to a remedial plan of improvement.

Such accountability is a good first step but should be applied on a regular schedule rather than simply when downsizing is required.

What also needs to be addressed are teachers’ retirement programs and health benefits.

Teachers do not contribute to Social Security and, therefore, must continue to teach if they expect to see a reasonable monthly benefit from the state retirement system.

Being dismissed for poor or low performance midway through a career would be an economic death sentence for many, which makes the argument for seniority so powerful.

If, however, new teachers were moved to the federal Social Security system, it would free people to change careers.

In the realm of health care benefits, the teachers’ health plan is the largest in Maine, which gives the union buying power to hold costs to a reasonable and somewhat predictable level on a statewide basis.

The staff of the Maine Education Association Benefit Trust also is taking steps to lower costs by improving the wellness of their members.

However, just as with the private sector, public policy in Maine has to attract more competitors to Maine’s insurance market if we’re going to get the best price for the same health benefits.

Given the magnitude of our spending on education, including health benefits, and our status as one of the highest-cost states in the country for health care services, we should not accept the status quo.

After all, it’s about delivering effective and affordable education to our children.

Let’s hope this period in time will one day serve as a history lesson in responsible public policy.

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

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]