Last in a series

From workforce development to a statewide teachers contract, education issues are front and center for Maine’s four candidates for governor.

The successor to Gov. Paul LePage will inherit an education system whipsawed by changes during his two terms, including controversial reform initiatives such as charter schools and assigning A-F grades to schools; a rotation of department commissioners; and a battlefield atmosphere as the governor regularly slammed the teachers union, rebuffed the Legislature’s education committee and disparaged public education in general.

The candidates agree on several issues – a desire for more stable leadership at the Department of Education, better pay for teachers, more money for classroom costs, and working to improve the education pipeline for high school and college graduates to live and work in Maine.

The four contenders – Republican Shawn Moody, Democrat Janet Mills and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron – also inherit certain stubborn challenges in education: tight budgets, declining enrollments; staffing shortages from teachers to bus drivers that will worsen as more employees retire; rising costs for personnel, energy and construction; and persistent achievement gaps between Maine’s richest and poorest students.

Even the most basic question – how to pay for education – is contentious.

The candidates have used their personal education backgrounds as benchmarks for their educational philosophies. Caron dropped out of school in ninth grade before eventually earning a master’s from Harvard University, while Moody started his business during high school and never went to college. Mills talks about being the child of a public high school English teacher, while Hayes was once a teacher and school board member.

Clockwise from top left: Alan Caron, Terry Hayes, Shawn Moody, Janet Mills

Here’s where the four stand on several key education issues:

Top priorities for K-12 and higher education

Moody, seen as the ideological heir apparent to LePage, generally plans to continue LePage-era education reforms if elected. His top K-12 priorities of cutting administrative costs and expanding career and technical education opportunities were both priorities for LePage, who reduced state funds for administrators and set up a multi-year program to continually shave those funds down to zero unless districts band together on regional centers to consolidate certain functions. LePage also expanded funding for career and technical education.

In higher education, Moody – who served as a trustee for both the two-year and four-year public higher education institutions in the state – would focus on workforce development. He said he would provide incentives to the community colleges and universities “to provide offerings with an eye on the careers in the region, and long-term trends, ensuring they align with the needs of Maine’s employers.”

Each candidate has tied workforce development to a stronger education system.

Mills, the Democrat, is proposing a state-sponsored job training program open to anyone, including those without a high school diploma, to get certificates or badges. The programs would be “intense training for six to eight week(s)” to prepare workers for entry-level jobs in high-demand fields, such as hospitality, construction or health care. “It’s time for the state to step up and help train people for these workforce needs and give young people an incentive to start a career,” she said.

For K-12, Mills said she would prioritize early childhood education, including universal pre-K education.

Despite broad agreement on the merits of early education, Maine has no mandate for it and only a handful of districts offer true universal pre-K – open to any 4-year-old in the district who wants to attend – in part because it is so costly and, after years of consolidation, many districts no longer have the physical space for it. In 2016-2017, Maine allocated $19 million to serve 5,440 children, approximately 39 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. For higher education, Mills said she would focus on increasing completion rates and reducing student debt.

The University of Maine System’s six-year graduation rate is 44 percent and the Maine Community College System’s three-year graduation rate is 26 percent.

Hayes said she would focus on raising teacher’s salaries and reworking the K-12 student day so that all social services are offered outside of school hours rather than during instructional time.

For older students, Hayes would focus on lowering costs by tackling the remediation issue – college students paying to take non-credit remedial courses. Instead, those students should take remedial courses through the cheaper adult education system. Colleges should also be taking a more active role in advising college students about other ways to cut costs, such as graduating in the shortest possible time.

Caron emphasized workforce development for both K-12 and higher education, saying he would prioritize getting children to begin schooling earlier and “providing opportunities” for high school graduates to get training without going into debt. He has proposed a two-year higher education plan that allows people to get free higher education if they live and work in Maine for the 10 years following graduation.

K-12 funding

The state spends $1.3 billion a year on education, out of a total $7.1 billion biennial state budget, which is distributed in part through a complicated and ever-changing formula that weighs a community’s ability to pay its own local education costs.

An effort to supplement that funding though a voter-approved tax on high-wage earners was scrapped during the 2017 budget showdown in exchange for a one-time infusion of $162 million. But other changes to the formula, including altering the student-teacher ratio and reducing administrative funding, meant local districts got less than they expected.

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All four candidates have discussed adequately funding Maine’s public schools, but they propose various paths.

An early campaign ad targeted Moody for saying public schools are “overfunded,” and he’s pushed back since to say he was quoted him out of context and that he thinks schools need to “operate efficiently.”

“I believe we should look at creative ways for school districts to remove duplicative administrative overhead, collaborate on procurement, coordinate busing and other back office operations so we can put more money where it belongs – in the classroom,” he said.

Mills said she would work to meet a 2004 voter mandate that the state pay 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education, a goal never reached. Currently, the state’s contribution is at 47 percent.

Mills also said she opposes using tax dollars for new charter schools, and wouldn’t support lifting the current 10-school cap on charter schools. Caron also opposes lifting the cap, Moody – who opposed charter schools in his 2010 run for governor – supports lifting it, and Hayes said she would have to study the issue more.

The state’s funding formula itself might change significantly under some candidates.

Hayes has proposed ditching the 55 percent funding goal and “putting everything on the table” regarding state funding. She suggests having the state pay for baseline salary and benefits for teachers under a statewide teachers contract, which LePage proposed but was killed in the last session. In Hayes’ proposal, local districts would pick up all other education costs, including any additional pay and benefits local districts want to offer teachers.

Caron has suggested shifting the funding formula’s reliance from property values – a point that has long been criticized as foisting undue tax burdens on poorer communities – to add income to the school aid distribution formula.

Caron also believes the system is “administratively top-heavy” and wants districts to consolidate administrative functions.

Teachers

Maine has a well-documented teacher shortage and an aging teacher workforce, and has made persistent – though unsuccessful so far – legislative efforts to raise the minimum teacher salary in Maine to $40,000 – which the state estimates would cost about $14 million to implement.

Moody, Mills and Hayes each told the Maine School Management Association that they would support a minimum teacher salary of $40,000, and Caron said he supported an increase of some kind. Moody said he would support a performance-based pay system for teachers, whom he has described as overworked and burdened by too much bureaucracy.

“They need help and I’m coming to the rescue,” Moody said of teachers during a debate before the Portland Regional Chamber.

Higher education

After years of flat funding and tuition freezes, the University of Maine System’s budget projections are based on the idea that state allocations and tuition revenue will increase at the rate of inflation. While all the candidates said they support providing adequate funding for higher education, each has certain expectations of the system before approving regular increases.

Mills and Moody said budget requests would be rigorously reviewed for efficiency and benefit. Moody would support increases if they were “tied directly to programming and student course offerings that resulted in fulfilling the needs of Maine employers and equipping students with the training necessary to fulfill the jobs available.”

Mills said she would support increasing funding, but would want the community college system and the university system to “streamline overhead between (them). … Every proposed increase must be justified.”

Caron said his first step in considering higher education funding would be to implement his two-year plan that allows people to get free higher education if they live and work in Maine for the 10 years following graduation. Hayes also said higher education funding should be tied to outcomes – preparing students for workforce demands.

Future of reform efforts

Another LePage-era education reform that is still on the books, but suspended for years, is the state-issued A-F grades for schools, meant to measure progress in several areas, including test scores and graduation rates. It’s been on ice since 2015, as the state settled on a consistent assessment test, but the report cards are scheduled to be publicly released in late December.

Caron, Mills and Hayes said they would not continue the report cards, and Moody said he was a “maybe.”

The candidates also differ on Maine’s one-time proficiency-based diploma law, which was one of the first in the nation and touted by LePage as one of his key education reforms when it passed in 2012. In June, LePage signed a bill ending the state mandate and leaving it up to local school districts whether to continue with proficiency-based diplomas or revert to a traditional credit-based A-through-F grading system. Under the law, students had to be proficient in eight key areas – including math, English and science/technology – in order to get a diploma.

When asked if students should need to be proficient in all eight learning areas to get a diploma, Moody and Caron said yes, while Mills said yes if there were waivers and accommodations. Hayes said no, not in all eight areas.

Asked if they would try to reinstitute a state mandate for proficiency-based diplomas, Mills and Moody both said no. Caron and Hayes said they would.

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