As a state, Maine has historically valued and invested in public education. We’re known as a state with an educated workforce to attract businesses. Our schools are rated in the top 12 by U.S. News & World Report and above national averages on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Although our school-age population statewide has been declining for several years, communities with growing immigrant populations have maintained or slowed the decline of their student enrollment. And students from our immigrant populations who have become proficient in the English language are raising our student achievement scores.
Our teachers, students, administrators and support staff have certainly had a couple of tough years with the pandemic and all of the challenges for teaching and learning it has brought. It is great to have the support from Maine’s Legislature and Gov. Mills to strengthen our public education system. This legislative session they have ensured that the provision of free meals for all students, which began in the pandemic, will now continue – we know that meeting basic needs helps ensure all students are ready to learn.
Over the past two years, the state has funded 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education for the first time in 17 years, since the voter-approved ballot initiative in 2003 that was reaffirmed in 2016 in a statewide initiative. The Legislature approved the minimum teacher salary of $40,000 in the 2020-2021 budget to help address the teacher shortage. Maine has the lowest teacher salaries in New England. This step will help retain and recruit teachers.
As a true patriot of the Maine public education system, I am both the biggest supporter and the biggest critic. There are many things we need to strengthen, including supporting our newest teachers.
With the current teacher shortage, the immediate response has been to allow anyone who can pass a background check to be the teacher in a classroom on an emergency certification – no bachelor’s degree required. More than 200 teachers are currently employed in Maine public schools on an emergency certification. This policy actually further exacerbates the teacher shortage, as veteran teachers burn out while supporting the unprepared teachers, who themselves most often leave within a year or two. Research shows that it costs school districts at least $10,000 per teacher to recruit and on-board new teachers. And not surprisingly, new teachers are concentrated in our schools with the highest rates of student poverty.
To actually strengthen our teaching workforce and thereby our education system, we need a variety of long- and short-term policy solutions. The Maine Department of Education’s #TeachMaine plan outlines these research-based best policies and identifies where many are being implemented in Maine already. Investing in the teacher workforce will strengthen our schools and Maine’s future workforce, as research has demonstrated in countries throughout the world, including Finland, Singapore and Korea. Or we can follow the model of states like New Mexico, which brought in members of the National Guard as substitute teachers just to keep its schools open.
Let us work together to ensure that we continue supporting public schools in the next legislative session.