Education reform vital to Maine’s economic growth

By Rep. Mike McClellan

I recently participated in the Maine Development Foundation’s bus tour for state legislators, which brought us to several businesses, large and small, to hear the concerns of Maine’s entrepreneurs and innovators.

One of the themes I heard consistently was that our education system is not effectively preparing our students for the world of work. For businesses to grow and for the unemployed and underemployed to find good jobs, we are examining the way the state has been providing education.

Last year in the legislature, we enacted several new laws to improve our education system. Perhaps the most widely publicized was the bill to allow charter schools in Maine. These institutions provide alternatives for students and parents who may not be satisfied with their local public school. Charter schools inject competition into the mix and give traditional public schools more of an incentive to improve. They also provide a smaller, less bureaucratic environment that serves as a laboratory of ideas to propel the entire education system forward.

We also passed legislation to allow school systems to reduce their health insurance costs, a major expense. LD 1326, for example, requires that the Maine Education Association (MEA), the teachers’ union, share the claims data necessary for school districts to pursue competitive bids for less expensive insurance options. In the past, the MEA has acted as the sole “broker” of health insurance to their members, which allowed the union to reap millions of dollars in so-called agent fees while the schools (and property taxpayers) footed the bill.

LD 404, in turn, requires school districts to seek competitive bids for health insurance plans every five years. This seems like a no-brainer, but it is necessary because some school districts may do what’s in the best interest of the teachers’ union rather than what is most economical.

Savings on insurance can free up money for improved facilities and teaching materials that directly affect student performance.

One of the great examples of bipartisanship last session was the overwhelming support given to the creation of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Council. The STEM Council will be a board of educators, professionals and business people who advise the state’s education system, from kindergarten to college, on ways to improve those vital areas of education. Jobs of the future will require a stronger command of math, technology and related fields. We must strengthen their delivery in our classrooms, and the STEM Council is a significant step toward that end.

Many people are surprised to hear — I know I was — that in the entire University of Maine system there is no degree program for hospitality and hotel management. With tourism being Maine’s largest industry, such a program makes a lot of sense. Furthermore, many Maine hotels and restaurants have to hire hospitality professionals from out of state to meet their employment needs.

In the last session, we passed a bill requiring the University System to begin to implement such a program with help from the Maine Tourism, Innkeepers and Restaurant Associations and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. The University of Southern Maine and surrounding community colleges have responded with plans to begin these programs.

This year, with the governor’s focus on STEM as well as vocational training, and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s recently introduced recommendations for reform of teaching methods in K-12 education, we are prepared to advance further improvements to Maine’s education system.

There are two primary concerns with the way we deliver education, beginning with the hard skills. Employers need grads from two- or four-year programs, who can program computers, fix airplanes or care for medical patients. It gives us pause, however, to hear many employers express concern that high school graduates don’t always have the basic skills fundamental to employment — the ability to write, communicate and collaborate with others.

Introducing new programs at post-secondary schools, exploring the possibility of technical high schools and working with employers to determine their educational needs are the keys to the first problem.

We are also committed to enhancing the delivery of basic education to our children so they can be valuable participants in the workforce regardless of their vocation. Charter schools and others initiatives will go a long way toward accomplishing this goal.

Education is important for education’s sake. Any state or country needs informed citizens. Every employer needs workers with basic, general knowledge. Nevertheless, this competitive interstate and international economy requires students with the hard skills necessary to attract the kinds of employers Maine needs for the 21st century.

State Representative Mike McClellan (R-Raymond) serves on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. He represents District 103, which consists of Frye Island, Poland (part), Raymond and Standish (part).

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