When Maine’s next governor takes office in January 2019, he or she will be faced with a problem that is as important as it is persistent: How does Maine make sure that each and every student gets the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of their ZIP code?

Educators, policymakers and business owners have known for some time about the achievement gap between students that exists largely because of economic disadvantages, and that overcoming those disadvantages in order to keep students in school and learning is key not only for the student’s success, but for the well-being of the state economy, too.

That, however, is easier said than done.

On Tuesday, Educate Maine, a business-led education advocacy organization concerned with college and career readiness, released its annual analysis of Maine’s education system, reporting on a series of indicators covering preschool enrollment through college graduation. While not much has changed in the past year, the indicators show some improvement since the first report in 2013 – just not enough to reach Educate Maine’s 2019 goals, or to sufficiently alter the conditions that are holding back the state economy.

The Educate Maine report looks at public education as a pipeline. It follows a hypothetical class of 12,800 Maine students as they start school, and shows what we can expect if state averages hold firm.

At the end, 11,150 will graduate high school. About 6,800 will go on to college, and about 3,250 will graduate with a two- or four-year degree.

With each falling number, you can see the leaks that occur along the pipeline. Some students who leave the pipeline earn a trade certificate and enter the workforce, while others come back to school later; in either case, they can do just fine.

But most of those students will struggle to find their place in the workforce, and as a result their future prospects will suffer. If it happens enough times, Maine businesses find it hard to fill positions.

The numbers are significant. Data suggest that about 14,000 Mainers ages 16 to 24 are neither working nor in school.

Programs such as Jobs for Maine’s Graduates have expanded to help these Mainers, who otherwise would see their supports diminish once they leave high school. What’s more, Maine schools have a renewed focus on technical training, which can be aimed at students who aren’t drawn to the typical high school experience.

But to be effective, Maine has to look at the beginning of the pipeline, when students from economically disadvantaged households first start to fall behind.

In some areas, the state is on the right track. Preschool access is on the way up, thanks to legislative changes that mandate pre-kindergarten and help local districts pay for it.

But more has to be done – the forces pushing in the other direction are too strong otherwise. The pressures of poverty and near poverty are hard on students. They move around more than kids from higher-income families, have greater health challenges and don’t get the same attention at home. They miss more school and have lower aspirations. They regress during summer break.

All of these factors make it more likely a student will exit the pipeline before their time. That’s a loss for them, and for Maine.

That’s nothing that policymakers haven’t heard before – the problem and the stakes are clear.

Now it’s time to do something about it, and that takes leadership. Each of the candidates for governor should make solving this problem a central part of their campaign, so we can know who’s ready to take on this issue in 2019.

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