Sunday Editorial on Editorials – Maine needs more of the same?

While there are some who would rather barricade schools up than allow the opinions of business people to influence education. When it comes to running a school more efficiently business innovations should be examined. However when it comes to actually educating children I’m not sure a business mind is always best.

Jake Burnham, a recent Columbia MBA graduate, wrote an editorial this morning linking the importance of an educated populace with a state’s economic growth and how to achieve that here in Maine. I agree with Burnham’s initial assertion. Maine is lagging in Gross Domestic Product (42nd) and GDP per capita growth (45th). A state’s percentage of graduates can contribute positively to GDP. Of the states in the top ten of GDP seven have 30% or more college graduates. Two of the top ten are mere fractions of a percentage point from 30%. One could stretch and say nine out of ten make the cut.

That doesn’t bode well for Mainers, 24% of whom are college graduates. Our two closest neighbors New Hampshire and Massachusetts are at 34% and 38% respectively. There are other factors to Maine’s low growth that Burnham doesn’t mention. Take into account the high property taxes (more on that later), high income taxes (10th highest), 48th out of 51 in the Business Tax Index, and relatively low per capita income ($34,000) the whole thing is much more complex than school reform alone can solve.

While Burnham’s narrow view of this issue is a problem it’s his solution that I find most troubling.

from Kennebec Journal:

The plan is simple but controversial: expand the scope of the education system to birth and extend the school calendar through the summer. The Educare center in Waterville, which will offer high-quality care and education for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers, is exactly what Maine needs, but the state needs it everywhere — and fast.

We are failing these children by assuming their parents can prepare them for kindergarten and keep them learning during the summer. Every child should have an opportunity to get a quality education. It should make no difference whether you are born into a mansion with two doctors in Cape Elizabeth or a trailer with one welfare recipient in Caribou.

Extending pre-k programs to all Maine children would be fruitful. Not all children start school with the same advantages as others. Giving everyone a leg up on a few skills (basic reading and math) will prepare them for their kindergarten year. Some summer programs will negate the need for so much review each fall. Burnham’s logic that if the current amount of education is decent then more must be better is severely flawed. Burnham assumes that schools are already functioning at high efficiency. Wrong. Maine schools are still functioning on the antiquated industrial learning model. Memorize, regurgitate, get a treat. Subjecting students to more of the same will not increase the quality of a school’s output to put it in blunt business terms.

Having state-wide Educare Centers such as the one in Waterville is also a nice idea. The cost, which at this time is not on the taxpayers, is high. Educare has a $3 million operating cost. When compared to the $93 million that the Portland School District has proposed for 2010 that doesn’t sound so bad.

But all this money talk raises one question. How will we pay for Burnham’s proposed reforms? More taxes!

from Kennebec Journal:

A creative recommendation from the Brookings Institution would be to institute a second-home property tax at the state level that would either apply strictly to non-residents or have a high exemption level to protect the majority of Mainers. “Summer People” own more than two-thirds of the $28 billion in second-home wealth in Maine. A small property and transfer tax would provide hundreds of millions of dollars with which to transform the outcomes of Maine’s future generations.

OK so maybe I played taxation specter a little bit. Taxing those dreaded people from “away” might not sound so bad to those of us who tough it out here year round. However, for a state that bases so much of its economy on tourism, taxing tourists may not be the best move. Not everyone who owns a second home can afford this extra tax. My mother in-law owns a small camp on North Haven. She is not a millionaire “summer person” in a McMansion. If they imposed yet another tax on her small property she would not be able to keep it any longer.

The economic impact of tourism in Maine cannot be understated. A 2006 study found tourism contributes $10 billion in sales and services. One out of six jobs in Maine is supported by tourism. That’s a greater percentage than even Florida. Those are numbers too big to ignore. How many people would continue to come spend their dollars in Maine if we taxed them even more. Most would find a less expensive place to play. That is not something Maine can afford in the short or long term. Especially since there are ways to improve education without large tax increases.

I may have come off a bit harsh. I agree with Burnham’s start (an educated populace improves economic growth) and his destination (Maine schools must offer a higher quality education). How we arrive at those goals are two vastly different trips.