A “blue ribbon” commission created by Gov. Paul LePage began work last week on an important review of the way Maine funds and delivers education. The panel represents a wide range of views and constituencies, and for it to produce anything meaningful, the members will have to find common ground.

In that way, there are parallels to be drawn with the diverse group of stakeholders that for months worked to find a bill on solar power that was acceptable to (almost) all sides, only to have it killed by LePage’s unwillingness to compromise.

But if you’re choosing to be hopeful, there are signs that this case could be different.

Speaking last week at events in Portland and Auburn, Bill Beardsley, Maine’s education commissioner-in-waiting, outlined what should be one of the tenets of his department, saying that it is the state’s “moral obligation to help the kids most in need.”

That should be the commission’s starting point, and its focus.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

At both of last week’s lectures, Beardsley laid out in broad strokes the challenges he sees facing Maine schools. Enrollment is falling, he said, yet costs continue to rise, test scores are not rising along with spending, and teachers are being asked to do too much.

There’s a lot of room for debate in that simple statement, and the members of the commission will no doubt find it, and find themselves stuck in a familiar political morass.

The question of equal opportunity for all Maine students, however, could make for some common ground.

Beardsley last week talked about the widening gap between the performance of students in Maine’s most affluent school districts, most of which are found in the southern and coastal parts of the state, and the students in its poorer districts, largely in northern and western Maine.

“Somehow we have got to break that achievement and income gap,” he said in Auburn.

That is not by any means an easy goal, but it is the right one. There is a wide disparity in the resources available to school districts in Maine, and thus a big difference in what those districts are able to offer students.

What’s more, the less affluent districts have to educate more students who come from low-income families, and who are more likely to come to school hungry and tired, from hectic home lives not conducive to studying.

THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP

Together, those circumstances create the achievement gap. Students start off ahead or behind based on where they were born and who they were born to, and that gap only grows as they go through school.

We can see the effect in third-grade reading proficiency, one of the best predictors of future academic success and another of Beardsley’s topics this week.

Well-funded, well-run preschool programs are proven to help close the achievement gap for young students, but those improvements tend to slip away in the ensuing years as funding falls away and the demographic realities take hold.

Conservatives may not like to hear it, but part of solution is additional spending. In order to close a gap based on available resources, it has to be. One study suggested Maine spend an additional $250 million to fully fund state school aid and special education.

But spending is not the only answer. As we’ve argued before, there are school districts doing more with less, and others should learn from them.

In fact, that’s one of the commission’s goals, and it should be the basis for finding bipartisan solutions to the growing achievement gap.

That’s not an easy task — the fate of the solar bill shows as much.

But for the sake of Maine students, we hope Beardsley’s comments are a sign the same won’t happen to the education commission.

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