All Maine children ought to have access to a quality education system that teaches critical life skills and sets students on a path to success. It’s essential to building a strong generation of Mainers and ultimately a stronger state.

Proficiency-based education has been around and in our classrooms for a long time, but this new diploma system has lacked widespread grass roots support, a cohesive vision and a thoughtful plan for implementation from the very beginning. In the Legislature’s Education Committee, we spent six years trying to support this seismic change to Maine’s public education system. Yet, between the revolving door of education commissioners and a top-down mandate, pursued without sufficient resources and support, the initiative floundered. It also created a host of worrisome consequences, whether it was withholding diplomas from hardworking students for not showing proficiency in all content areas or the narrowing of studies deemed important to the potential exclusion of sciences, languages, social studies, arts and the list goes on.

Rather than rush proficiency-based diplomas into action before all school districts were ready just to make us feel good as lawmakers, a majority of members on the Education Committee decided to pause and take a step back. With a new administration and legislature next year, Maine has an opportunity to re-envision our education system with adequate stakeholder support and input from schools to really move the dial for Maine kids. We have the opportunity to fully implement a shared vision with a number of key priorities that have already received broad bipartisan support.

If we are serious about thinking big and bold when it comes to our education system, Maine must invest in early childhood, bolster our public education system and promote innovative programs that help our kids transition successfully into the workforce.

All of Maine’s young children need a strong start so they show up to school ready and able to learn no matter the economic situation of their family or community. Home-visiting, child care, and public preschool all work together by supporting young families as they build solid foundations. Last year, the Legislature increased funding for preschool, but we still need to do more to expand public preschool and make child care more affordable so parents can work. In the original bill regarding proficiency-based diplomas put before the Education Committee, the proposal included several provisions related to early childhood – none of which were enacted with the mandate.

Strengthening Maine’s early education programs is an important step to ensuring more children are on equal footing, prepared for kindergarten, and ready to learn. But we also need to restore the morale of our public school educators. Policymakers ought to be taking more time to listen and support our teachers, the people who are in the classroom, working with students and speaking with families.

They have been very clear about their needs: professional wages, strong mentoring programs and common time for peer group discussions and planning opportunities. All are well-established in the private sector; it’s only common sense that we offer the same to our teachers who have critical roles in our children’s lives and our state’s economic future.

Lastly, we must support all of our students as they consider options for life after high school, including career and technical training and education (CTE) programs, which have been undervalued in recent years. We need to start treating the CTE program as the meaningful career pathway that it is. This starts with funding critical equipment updates to ensure Maine’s programs to meet industry standards and our students graduate ready to work. We also must broaden our investment in dual enrollment/early college programs to reach more students.

I’ve seen firsthand how these programs can make a huge difference for first-generation college students and students living in poverty.

The education of Maine’s next generation of workers, leaders, and parents is too important to the future of our state to go without proper leadership, planning, and vision. We have the opportunity to bring this shared vision for our children and grandchildren to fruition next year.