Our state and our nation need to understand the difference between two phrases: “investing in education” and “making an educational investment.”

The first involves flipping a switch, opening a valve, somehow increasing the flow of money into our system of education. It applies to all levels of education, from pre-K to postgraduate and to all levels of government, from municipal to federal.

It is based on the proposition that providing more education to more people raises their productivity and increases their ability to realize whatever potential they may have over what it would have been without that education.

As a result, the town, the city, the state, the nation providing that education receives a collective public benefit that outweighs the increased flow of money into the system.

Investing in education is based more on faith, common sense and a long history – spanning many countries over many decades – illustrating the link between the expansion of public education and increasing human prosperity – than it is on a tightly argued case for each particular increase in funding.

Making an educational investment, on the other hand, is far less broad-based, far less universal. It is far more specific, far more data-driven. It is based on a clearly articulated problem and a clearly articulated hypothesis about how to solve that problem.

Its definition of investment is not a call to “just do more,” but rather a call to “try something different in this particular area for these particular reasons.”

The first definition of investment depends on a dogged conviction about the beneficial effects of education in general, on a philosophy of “try harder, do more.” The second concept is based on curiosity about the possibilities of new ways of teaching and learning, a lighter-handed philosophy of “think carefully; apply limited and highly targeted resources; fail fast and try again.”

Neither of these conceptions of investment is right or wrong, superior or inferior. But it is clear to me in this time of radical socioeconomic change – when virtually all of our mechanisms of civic virtue and public governance are failing – that Maine would be far better served by a major dose of the second than a merely hopeful toss of the dice on the first.

Consider three of the major problems evident in even a cursory review of the operation of Maine’s current system of public education:

 The rapidly declining labor force participation of men aged 25 to 54, a drop in which Maine has recently fallen farther than the national average.

The declining enrollment in many small, rural elementary schools, which precipitated a tug of war between the desire to educate young children close to home and the drive for administrative efficiencies that keep them on buses for hours every day – both of which have precipitated a rush to the exits to undo the school consolidation efforts undertaken by the Baldacci administration a decade ago.

The growing number of international immigrants in our larger cities, which has created enormous new demands for both adult education and the teaching of English as a second language – demands that are not spread evenly across all school districts.

Our current system of trying to equalize property value per student across the state fails to recognize and address the underlying structural conditions that caused these problems to arise. They are among the wrenching effects of globalization:

The loss of traditional sources of employment.

• The movement of people away from and the consequent hollowing out of beloved hometowns.

The stark reality that the only force keeping Maine from total population decline is international migration, which, as it has throughout history, occurred first and in largest numbers in major urban centers.

To demand that our public education system solve these problems on its own is both unfair and doomed to failure. Addressing even these three issues will require the explicit effort of our business community, our nonprofit sector and our citizenry at large.

And how, pray tell, will that occur? To my mind, the best solution is to create an educational version of the Maine Technology Asset Fund.

The citizens of Maine today pay well over a billion dollars per year for public education. We should commit to an R&D fund equal to 10 percent of that total, a bond issue of $100 million per year for 10 years. We should solicit bids from schools and all those who wish to partner with schools (and non-public matching funds should be required of all applicants) to define a particular educational problem, how it is to be solved and how the success of that proposed solution will be tested.

For over a decade, the Maine Technology Asset Fund has been the state’s major source of “putting its money where its mouth is” in economic development. Now is the time to apply that model, on a much larger scale, to the related but far more fundamental problem of creating a system of public education that explicitly invests in potential solutions to its most critical problems.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]