The beginning of September traditionally kicks off the school year, which always brings new challenges and opportunities for Maine families, students and the public school system. This year is no exception.

To address the challenges facing education in Maine, the Legislature has taken major steps this year to provide our school districts, teachers and staff the resources they need to meet students’ needs. But we still have much more to do.

One of the most immediate challenges facing school districts was highlighted in the Aug. 30 Press Herald editorial outlining the need for additional resources to support English language learners. Since last September, school districts across Maine have experienced a noticeable increase in students needing English language learner services, with Portland schools top among them.

In response, the Legislature stepped up and passed a supplemental budget signed by Gov. Mills in July that will provide a significant infusion of $3.5 million for the ELL Hardship Fund, which was established by the Legislature last year. In October, Portland schools will receive nearly $785,000 to pay for staff and important services to assist these students.

Another initiative enacted by the Legislature will allow Portland to apply for school construction funding to build a combined high school and career technical education center. Funds were also appropriated to assist preschoolers with disabilities by increasing reimbursements for children attending special-purpose schools. Equally important, a bill aimed at supporting programming for reading proficiency, a key determinant of future educational and economic success, was passed. Finally, the Legislature helped municipalities manage their property taxes by keeping its commitment of 55% school funding and continued efforts to reduce food insecurity/hunger by maintaining free lunch programs for all students.

However, despite these successes, there is still more work to be done on issues related to workforce development, student homelessness and mental health.


One of the most pressing issues facing school districts is a shortage of workers and fully qualified staff. To address this problem, we must first raise the minimum teacher starting salary to $50,000. Currently, Maine has the lowest starting salary in New England, putting us at a significant disadvantage when attracting and retaining teachers.  Recently, I learned of a University of Maine at Farmington graduate who was applying for teaching positions out of state because of higher salaries.  He’s not alone, and we must act now to replenish our teaching workforce.

Next, a fair salary structure for educational technicians, bus drivers, food service workers and support staff should be implemented. These positions are the cornerstone of all school districts, yet they are clearly underpaid given their critical role. The Maine Department of Education is studying this issue and will present a report to the Legislature in January for review and further action.

Last year, at least 2,100 students in Maine public schools were identified as homeless, and school officials are already estimating this number will grow in the coming months. Students who are without a home are at higher risk of falling behind in school and, worse yet, dropping out. Providing direct and immediate support for them has to be one of our highest priorities when we return to Augusta.

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee has consistently heard testimony and reports about the need to increase mental health services for students and staff. During the next session, we will revisit a proposal to expand an array of services by adopting a “community schools” model that will allow schools to engage additional mental health professionals at all grade levels. Simultaneously, the state must finalize new regulations for MaineCare so that schools have the resources to access appropriate mental health services.

Unfortunately, educational issues have been the focal point of the “culture wars” being waged across Maine and the country.

Earlier this year, we debunked and defeated proposals to rate books, sanitize educational programming, allow guns in schools and silence teachers. Hopefully, in the coming months and the next legislative session, we will turn the majority of our attention to prioritizing and advancing proposals and programs that will improve educational outcomes for all students and, as a result, create a better future for our state.

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