AUGUSTA — Students across Maine are counting down the days until their long-awaited summer break. After a school year filled with creative and dedicated instruction, kids are now anxiously looking forward to field trips, summer camp and swimsuits. Our teachers are ready to issue their report cards, wish their students farewell and reflect on how they will make their classroom even stronger next year.

At the same time, legislators in Augusta are in the midst of budget negotiations that center on these very students, these same teachers, the future of our classrooms and, indeed, the future of Maine. Now is the time we meet our obligation to fund these schools at 55 percent of their cost, as required by law.

As speaker of the House, and the proud parent of three children in our public schools, this negotiation is one of my biggest responsibilities, on both a personal and a public level. We must ensure that all Maine kids receive an education that allows them to compete anywhere in the world.

Fifty-five percent is more than a number on a spreadsheet. It means equal opportunity and fair access to education. It is a commitment to excellent learning standards. It represents a dedication to equity, so an 8-year-old kid in Frenchville is getting the same quality education as a third-grader in Freeport.

Democrats know that adequately funding our schools is fundamental to building a strong economic future, too. A skilled, well-educated workforce will attract more companies and jobs to our state. We must provide our kids with the skills they need to stay and succeed here in Maine – that’s something we all agree on.

Beyond education, we also have an opportunity to ease the property tax burden too many Mainers are struggling with. Failing to appropriately fund our schools creates more pressure on local communities who are forced to make up the state’s shortfall by increasing property taxes. Ultimately, we all end up suffering.

Mainers are in agreement that our students deserve to be a top priority. That’s exactly why they voted in 2004 to establish this 55 percent state-funding requirement. When lawmakers still didn’t meet that expectation, another referendum was placed on the ballot in 2016, demanding full funding for education. But this time, recognizing that for 14 years the Legislature said there was not enough money, voters endorsed a funding source in the form of a 3 percent surcharge on incomes over $200,000.

Democrats have been clear since November. This biennium, we will be meeting our obligation to fully fund the state’s share of education. This is what Mainers have undeniably directed us to do, not only because our kids and our teachers deserve our support, but also because we recognize it is the key to a strong economic future for Maine. We have been steadfast in this message, but we also opened the door to considering an alternative funding source if it is both sustainable and progressive.

Since November, our Republican colleagues have sounded a different message. They say that the 3 percent surcharge to fund education is unacceptable, but they’ve been mostly silent on the most important part of this issue, and the real intention of the voters in November. Will they support full education funding, and how do they propose to get there?

It is time for a critical conversation. If Republicans are serious about the surcharge being an impediment to negotiations, now is the time to come forward with a plan.

Democrats are at the table. We are willing to hear alternative ideas for funding, as long as they are sustainable biennium after biennium. As long as they ask those who can most afford to contribute to do so. As long as they do not put the biggest burden on those least able to pay.

But make no mistake: Until those ideas are brought forward, until the idea of full funding of education is embraced, our position is supported by the law that a majority of Maine people passed with their votes at the ballot box.

Despite the obstacles along the way, I’m optimistic about the path forward. We’re all in agreement that our children deserve a world-class education. Democrats will honor the will of voters that the state fund 55 percent of education costs, and we’ll get there in a fair and equitable way.

In a little over a month, when legislators end this session and reflect on our accomplishments, anything less would be unacceptable.