MANCHESTER – There’s nothing good about a severe recession, but it is an opportunity to recalibrate how we deliver public services and to change expensive ways of doing business.

In K-12 education, cost and performance both deserve rethinking because our growth in spending is unsustainable and our academic performance is sliding.

As the beneficiary of public education in Maine, I am deeply grateful for the dedication, sacrifice and inspiration of teachers who have made a real difference in the lives of countless students. It is not individuals, but the current system, which is at issue.

Maine continues to do relatively well on 4th and 8th grade math and reading proficiency tests, and we’ve received great results for Advanced Placement exams. But, scores are falling behind what we achieved 10 years ago, SAT scores are below the national average, and 22 percent of high school students drop out.

Most disconcertingly, we are slipping in overall educational attainment. Mainers between 25 and 34 actually have less formal education than those between 35 and 54 — not good in a global, knowledge-based economy.

These troubling trends are not for a lack of resources. Maine spends 25 percent more per student than the national average — $13,513 compared to $10,259 in 2008. We can’t put all the blame on geography — the 12 less densely populated states all have lower costs per student.


Instead, key cost drivers are making our schools expensive:

Fragmentation. Despite recent progress, of the 178 districts with schools of their own, 60 are still so small they employ fewer than 25 teachers.

Administrative employment. In the last 20 years student enrollment has dropped some 16 percent. But in those same two decades administrative employment has more than doubled, from 8,000 to over 19,000, as new programs and services are implemented.

Student-teacher ratios. A decade ago, when our test scores were better, Maine had a 14:1 student-teacher ratio. In 2009, we were down to approximately 11.3 and still falling. The national average is 15.3. The difference between now and 10 years ago costs about $400 million per year.

Special education. Costs here have risen by a third in just the last 10 years to $290 million, with 18 percent of Maine kids designated as needing special assistance, compared to a national average of 13.7 percent.

So what can we do?


Despite the recession and hardship for homeowners, many towns will doubtless opt to raise taxes for education and continue with business as usual — even though research has shown that there is virtually no correlation between high K-12 spending and high academic performance.

Most also will consider a painful menu of expedient cuts to try to get by with as little fundamental change as possible — furloughs, pay freezes, ”pay to play” sports, outsourcing, closing buildings, etc.

But a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s make strategic, structural changes in how we deliver public education by focusing on the big cost drivers. Here’s how:

Stay the course on consolidation. The excess staffing and poor academic performance of our tiny units are too costly for communities and students.

Freeze and begin reducing employee head counts, both administrators and teachers, until we get back to ratios comparable to what we had 10 years ago. Coincidentally, those ratios are similar to those of our peer states who are best performers now.

Share the savings with displaced employees to ease the hardship of their transition and present a consistent, statewide program of early retirement, continued health care, retraining and relocation expenses, severance and other measures.


Establish a state-wide pre-kindergarten program. Early engagement has been proven to be one of the best ways to improve academic performance. The cost is estimated at $55 million, but the savings from the above actions would both enable funding and give new opportunities for some displaced teachers.

Manage special education statewide. Use federal eligibility standards and develop oversight for consistent diagnoses, treatment, compensation and case management both within and across districts, encouraging collaboration and shared resources.

New technology, innovation and accountability should be welcomed into our K-12 culture, so that we can make the most effective and efficient use of our resources.

That’s a tall order, but far more hopeful than endless rounds of tax increases, arbitrary cuts and declining academic performance. Maine can do better!


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