THIS IS THE first of a series that will run three consecutive Sundays in which the five gubernatorial candidates on the ballot are asked questions on one topic crucial to Mainers. Today’s topic is education.

Do you support creating a charter school system in Maine?

Libby Mitchell: No. Unbiased data shows that charter schools produce mixed results for students. They do however, take money out of our public schools at a time when we cannot afford it. I support taking the aspects of charter schools that work and incorporating them into our public schools so every Maine student benefits without depriving some of the resources they need.

Paul LePage: Yes, I support charter and magnet schools. The student is the most important person in the classroom. I will work for a voucher system that allows students and their parents to pick the     school that works best for them.

Shawn Moody: Not at this time, (because) creating a network of charter schools in Maine would take 3-5 years. We can use charter schools as leverage when negotiating with the teachers’ union over issues like merit pay.

Eliot Cutler: Yes. Those children for whom traditional public school is not productive need another option. I will push for legislation that will permit the charter of innovative, autonomous public schools as alternatives to our regular public schools. Recent studies show that charter schools work, and that they often foster dramatic and positive changes in the quality and delivery of cost effective education.

Kevin Scott: Yes. Charter Schools represent competition, a key component to innovation and success. My plan calls for a partnership with Maine’s vibrant, private secondary & post secondary schools. By having the charter held by these private schools we can build on the economic contributions of an establish Maine industry as well as advance public charter schools performance and oversight.

Do you support initiating a system of merit pay for public school teachers?

Libby Mitchell: I voted to repeal the law that prohibited student performance from being used to determine teacher compensation. I would support a system developed by parents, teachers and administrators that utilizes multiple factors to determine teacher performance.

Paul LePage: The best indicator of a teacher’s ability is the success of the students in the classroom. If students excel, their teacher should be recognized and rewarded. If students consistently fail to improve, their teacher should not benefit with automatic pay increases based on longevity.

Shawn Moody: Absolutely, but not tied directly to student performance. Merit pay is the American way – pay for performance. We will do so by using a whole range of criteria to judge performance, a 360-degree approach involving students, parents, the principal and a small teacher peer group.

Eliot Cutler: The present compensation system, a simplistic seniority-based system, makes no distinction between those who teach and lead effectively and nor does it encourage our best and brightest to stay in the teaching profession. I believe that educators, teams of educators and schools that demonstrate their ability to improve student performance ought to be rewarded for their efforts.

Kevin Scott: I would consider this on a pilot basis, not a one size fits all, statewide plan. It could then be analyzed based on real world experience.

Do you support further administrative reductions in the K-12 public education system?

Libby Mitchell: While consolidation has not worked everywhere, it did address a real problem: too many administrators and too few teachers. The state should provide the appropriate level of funding for administration in each district. If a district wants to exceed that amount it would be their responsibility to fund it. While we must continue to streamline administration, it is time to change the conversation back to what is best for the education of our kids instead of the number of principles, superintendents and districts.

Paul LePage: Our limited education dollars need to be reprioritized. We need to fully fund classrooms first, so teachers have the resources to teach. Our dollars should be used to advance learning in the classroom and not fund a bloated education bureaucracy.

Shawn Moody: The fact is that while school enrollment is dropping, teaching and administrative staffs are growing. We need a second-generation consolidation to address additional opportunities and to clean up the loose ends that remain after the original consolidation plan. This time, we’ll do it in a less punitive way and put the savings back into the classroom.

Eliot Cutler: Yes, but only where it makes sense. I do not support forced consolidation. However, with enrollments declining, cost soaring, and student performance lagging, we have to find ways to reduce administrative costs and re-invest savings in those things that will improve student achievement, such as preschool education,professional development for teachers, better compensation, and a longer school year.

Kevin Scott: This requires more study and listening time with the stakeholders. This issue is a community, student, teacher, administrator issue and I respect that. I do believe every community in Maine must have at minimum a K-5 school to avoid travel time, fatigue, and uncertainty on our most vulnerable students, those that are K-5

Should Maine create statewide standards for special education programs?

Libby Mitchell: We must be fair to special education students and their families. We should have a standard that is consistent and fair. Not to meet some arbitrary quota or to save money, but so that parents and students have the same consistent access to quality education.

Paul LePage: Yes, we should eliminate the disparity between communities and have a statewide standard for special education programs.

Shawn Moody: Yes. Special education standards are not applied uniformly – one student placed in a special education in one school district would not be eligible in another district. We need to ensure that students with special needs get the services they need, but we need to apply common sense to the way we allocate those services.

Eliot Cutler: Approaches to special education and rates of identification vary significantly throughout the state and our special education costs are soaring. We need to learn from those practices that are best serving our students who need services and examine whether statewide program standards will help us better meet this challenge at costs that we can sustain over time.

Kevin Scott: No. Children should not be standardized; special education should be based on results sought by each family and teacher, not results imposed by government. This practice has failed in the past and I am seeking election to bring innovative, proven solutions to these problems.

Do you believe the state should reach 55 percent in GPA funding? If yes, how long expect to get there and if no, what’s the appropriate level of state funding?

Libby Mitchell: Achieving 55% funding for education is the goal, but the reality is that with the economic downturn we are not going to get there this year. The state has rapidly increased education funding over the past five years and we should continue to do so until we reach 55 percent.

Paul LePage: The citizens of Maine voted for the state to fund 55 percent of GPA funding. Therefore, the state has the responsibility to abide by the will of the people. To meet that responsibility the state needs to reprioritize spending and shrink the size and scope of state government.

Shawn Moody: The 55 percent funding formula is not a realistic goal or we would have already achieved it. You can actually dispirit an organization by setting unrealistic goals. I recommend taking the average of last five years of spending for education, add a percent or two, and use that realistic and achievable goal for education funding.

Eliot Cutler: The state has never reached (the 55 percent target) and we certainly will not be able to do so in the next few years. We first need to get overall state spending under control and then we need to enact comprehensive tax reform. In the process of doing so, we  should revisit our approach to funding public education across the state. It is not at all clear to me that local property taxes can or should be the principal mechanism for doing so.

Kevin Scott: Yes, we should attain the 55 percent state funding. It can be done in the first bi-annual budget submitted by my administration. Maine will continue to struggle under property tax burdens if we do not address this issue immediately.

Is Maine’s current per pupil spending too much, too little or just the right amount?

Libby Mitchell: Outcomes are more important than per pupil spending. Maine’s kids test higher than the national average, but we cannot be satisfied with that. We need to continue to improve the education our kids receive. We can reduce our per pupil spending by continuing to streamline backroom operations.

Paul LePage: Maine’s student population has steadily decreased, while per pupil spending has steadily increased. We need to make sure our education dollars are going directly into the classroom to provide our teachers with the resources they need to teach, instead of funding a bloated administrative bureaucracy.

Shawn Moody: It’s hard to argue that we’re spending too little on K-12 education, since Maine is spending 25 percent more than the national average per student. Meanwhile, test scores are dropping, 63 percent of eighth graders failed reading proficiency standards and the drop-out rate is increasing. Most important is the question of whether we are getting our money’s worth.

Eliot Cutler: It is too high for the results we are getting, but it’s not simply a question of how much we are spending, it’s also a question of how we are spending it.

Kevin Scott: Are we including cost of facilities, cafeteria, or just teacher salary and textbooks? So many variables are involved in solving a problem. We need to make certain we are doing the correct analysis for the information we truly want. Again, this is a parent, student, teacher, administrator issue and I will work to address this once elected.

Do you support collecting students’ Social Security Numbers to help develop Maine’s longitudinal data system?

Libby Mitchell: No. Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in our state and I would be hesitant about creating another reservoir of information for identity thieves. We must balance the need for accurate data with the privacy rights of our students.

Paul LePage: No, I believe we should protect our children’s privacy.

Shawn Moody: I’m not sure. I want to examine this issue more closely to see if there is a better way to track students. I agree that there is a need for better data regarding where our students go once they leave high school, either by graduating or dropping out. But turning over social security numbers to another state agency to enable it access personal information bothers me.

Eliot Cutler: I think the studies can yield important data, but it should be up to the parents of each child to decide whether they want to share the child’s Social Security data.

Kevin Scott: No. It enforces the idea that data and standards are more important than individual child achievement. Let teachers teach and let children learn. At no time in our history, has our public school’s performance been subject to such criticism while at the same time we have burdened teachers with No Child Left Behind, longitudinal data collection etc. We need to solve problems, not create new ones.

Should there be consolidation between the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System? What do you think it should be?

Libby Mitchell: No. The university and the community colleges have two distinct missions and we should not dilute their effectiveness by consolidation. The two systems should look at what backroom functions can be combined (retirement accounts, bulk purchasing, etc) in an effort to become more lean but they should not do so at the expense of those seeking degrees. They should also coordinate more closely to ensure that students moving between the systems can do so seamlessly.

Paul LePage: Consolidation efforts for K through 12 have not produced the intended savings. Therefore, I will look carefully at any consolidation proposal for higher education to see if there will actually be any savings.

Shawn Moody: I agree that there can be more consolidation of administrative functions between the two systems, but I do not favor a complete merger. The two systems have very different missions and it has not been demonstrated that a merger would achieve any real savings. We need to collaborate, not compete, by consolidating low enrollment classes and providing appropriate capacity for enrollment in classes that are matched to available jobs.

Eliot Cutler: I want to merge our university and college systems. Having one governing body for both systems will improve efficiency and planning for the various campuses and reduce unnecessary duplication of programs. Broadband technology exists to accommodate video conferencing and asynchronous distance learning.

Kevin Scott: No. They represent different missions and if managed properly can achieve efficiencies, less operational cost, and help more Maine people attained needed higher education. A consolidation proposal avoids the value add we need to introduce; consolidation is a diversion from working to achieve individual excellence in the separate systems.