The state needs to provide equity in education

By Kathreen Harrison | Jul 07, 2016

I read with dismay Jake Bleiberg’s June 24 story in the Bangor Daily News about the poor condition of four of Portland’s elementary schools – Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth – and about unsuccessful efforts dating back two decades to have the schools renovated.

In this country we are unfortunately accustomed to hearing about grossly neglected school buildings in certain neighborhoods in big urban centers – what a shame that Portland should join these ranks.

The article describes some serious problems – no space for special education classes, leaking roofs, overcrowded classrooms, temporary mobile trailers standing in for permanent classrooms and an inflexible, glacially slow bureaucracy. Any teacher will tell you that the kinds of problems Bleiberg details invariably have a negative effect on student learning.

If we are going to attract and keep families in Maine we need to provide excellent schools. At the very least our buildings need to serve the educational needs of students. We also need outstanding academic programming, high-quality professional development for teachers, fully staffed art and music and world language programs, and competitive salaries for teachers. These are the basic ingredients of excellent schools and we should prioritize making sure all schools in Maine offer them.

In a state with a declining population and a preponderance of elderly residents, and a world where picking up a family and moving to another state is a viable option, we cannot afford mediocre schools. Unfortunately, at the present time, while there are some schools that offer the ingredients which combine to make excellent schools, most schools in Maine are missing most of these ingredients of excellence.

Statewide, we have a handful of districts that offer intellectually high-level professional development for teachers and many that have practically eliminated the professional development line from the budget; a few schools only that boast excellent performance spaces and fully staffed arts classes; some whose primary and middle school aged children are learning world languages while others offer none; some districts where teachers are paid $10,000 more annually than in others; some schools where high school students can choose from a dozen advanced placement courses and others that offer none at all.

Many of our towns run the real risk of losing families who don’t perceive the schools as adequate for their children’s needs. For the good of our communities we need to increase funding at the state level for our schools so that districts can provide the ingredients needed for an outstanding, equitable education for all.

In recent years the state has pushed the burden of paying the costs of education further and further on local taxpayers. It is time for the state to live up to the demands of Mainers expressed in a referendum in 2004 that the state fund the cost of education for students at the 55 percent level. This would help many districts cover the costs of programs needed by students.

The reason some schools offer the ingredients for an excellent education while most do not is primarily inequity in funding. Some schools are located in districts where local taxes provide comfortably for the needs of the students and where wealthy residents donate generously to schools and most others are located in poorer districts.

The State of Maine should prioritize leveling the playing field for Maine’s students. We should not have some schools that have waited 20 years for renovations while others boast college-worthy performance spaces and budgets. Maine needs every young person currently in school to grow up with the background of an excellent education. Our best hope is that they decide to stay in this state when they become adults, help us solve our problems, and contribute their energy to strengthening the economy.

Kathreen Harrison is a longtime educator with a strong interest in school reform. She is currently a world language teacher in St. George.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.