CUMBERLAND – Pundits and aspiring politicians are once again offering their one-size-fits-all fix for K-12 public education. Typically, they argue that the cost far outstrips the results. Graduation rates, per-pupil costs, test scores, student/teacher ratios and teachers’ and administrators’ salaries are cited as evidence.

In David Flanagan’s column (“K-12 education needs to be revamped, so here’s a plan to get it done,” Feb. 22), he uses numerous statistics as evidence that Maine K-12 public education needs a major overhaul.

He cites a student/teacher ratio of 11:1 as an indicator of current escalating costs. What he doesn’t share is the statistic’s source. Does the 11:1 ratio represent the total number of students divided by the total number of teachers in the state?

There is an incredible variance in the number of students in individual classrooms statewide for a variety of reasons. For example, it is not uncommon to have fewer than 15 students in a calculus class or an AP physics class.

Some self-contained special education classrooms have mandated student/teacher ratios of less than 11:1. There are many ninth-grade English classes with ratios exceeding 20:1.

There is little question that public education in Maine is expensive. For most communities, between 65 and 75 percent of the school budget is tied to personnel. The logical conclusion is to look at personnel costs for relief.

It is true that if Maine’s policy-makers are truly serious about reducing the cost of public education, they need to make significant changes in today’s public school mission. Our contemporary school mission includes a wide range of mandated social and educational services not present 50 years ago.

The cost of education is directly related to mandates from all branches of government. In addition, local school boards have contributed, too.

What programs or services are we willing to give up in an effort to reduce costs? The answer to this question is extremely difficult for policy-makers. For every program addition, there is an advocacy group supporting “what is best for children.”

For example, are we prepared to give up social workers in schools who provide a population of students with critical support? Do we need to provide students with comprehensive health education? What about industrial arts or the visual and performing arts? Should education’s mission be limited to the core subjects of reading, writing, math, science and social studies?

What about elementary foreign language and physical education? Special education rules require that an administrator be in attendance at every Pupil Evaluation Team meeting. Is this necessary? Should public schools offer high school co-curricular and athletic programs?

The argument to “freeze and begin reducing employee head counts until we get back to ratios comparable to what we had 10 years ago” is at best disingenuous. It lacks an understanding of the contemporary classroom. In addition, it doesn’t acknowledge the current mandated programs and services required of Maine schools.

Notwithstanding, the argument that costs are out of control and that the solutions are systemic in nature is valid and legitimate. Consolidation makes sense for many small districts. Additionally, recalibrating Maine’s educational mission makes sense as well, if we want to reduce per-pupil costs in our schools.

We believe as a nation that a quality education is necessary for maintaining our social, economic and political well being. But is it the schools that are failing; or, are we as a nation and state failing our schools?

If we truly want a world-class educational system, what investment and policy decisions must we make to insure this outcome? Before offering generalized statewide solutions, we need to correlate student educational needs, with not only mandated programs and services but also costs.

It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see where quality education exists in this country and state, and where it is failing. These outcomes are often disheartening and contrary to our belief system.

The answer is not a one-size-fits-all model, but a clear understanding of the systemic educational needs of individual school districts and schools. A ratio of 25:1 might be absolutely appropriate for students attending a suburban middle school while a ratio of 15:1 may be needed for a rural or inner-city middle school.

The challenge is to provide all students with a quality educational opportunity while maintaining fiscal responsibility.


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