Opportunity is knocking at Maine’s community colleges

The unexpected bonanza of federal funds over the past two years, coupled with a rapidly recovering pandemic economy, has inundated Maine, like most states, with cash.

It won’t last. But after the many fiscal crises of the last three decades, starting with the big one in 1991, it’s a nice problem.

In line with her cautious governance, Gov. Janet Mills has proposed – with the legislature generally agreeing – to stick with the tried and tested. After the lean years of Gov. Paul LePage’s budgets, during which tax cuts were the top and almost the only priority, Mills has restored funding to a variety of programs.

Chief among these are bringing municipal revenue sharing back to the 5% required by law after being cut to just 2%, and – for the first time – a full 55% for public schools, pre-kindergarten through high school. Including teacher retirements—the employer’s contribution being paid in full by the state—Maine now directs more than $1.7 billion a year to its primary and secondary education systems.

There is such a large surplus that, at the request of Republicans, Mills plans to return more than $400 million of the estimated $822 million to taxpayers in rebate checks, in addition to a smaller round last year.

Of the remaining balance, she proposes putting another $100 million into the leaky bucket of the Maine Highway Fund, a program that has had under-revenues for about two decades, but has not made any moves toward higher fuel taxes.

There is extra funding for retirees – a near-necessity as annual adjustments are capped at 3% and inflation nearly doubled in 2021; State retirees are not eligible for Social Security with their automatic COLAs.

Still, in the latest round, there’s little that could be called a new program, with one exception — free tuition at Maine’s community colleges at a two-year price tag of $20 million: a steal.

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It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, at least since Governor John Baldacci renamed the technical colleges in 2003, but without providing significant new funding.

The seven community colleges are probably the least visible part of the public education system, from preschool to graduate level, but have always enjoyed strong support from both the public and legislators.

The two-year programs produce graduates in nursing, construction, and many other fields that are in record demand, but enrollment lags behind the New England average.

From the 1990s, the conviction that bachelor’s degrees were necessary for the “jobs of the future” dominated educational rhetoric. It turns out that most new jobs don’t require college degrees, and the pandemic’s “core workforce” often only have high school diplomas.

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What the college push has created is an explosion in student debt, a problem Mills is recognizing with a plan to add $42 million to Opportunity Tax Credit and provide a refund for grads who stay in Maine to work .

But the focus should be primarily on avoiding debt, which is why pursuing community college is so important. While current tuition of $3,700 may seem reasonable, it is actually a significant barrier to those most likely to attend, especially in the thousands of Maine families where no one has ever attended college.

While it’s true that a high school education isn’t enough to get you into jobs that pay a living wage, the community college option can raise expectations while alleviating mounting labor shortages.

As the nation’s oldest demographic, Maine desperately needs more young people, and one way to attract them is to make education more accessible, especially since so many students have jobs while they’re in college.

There is the familiar debate about what happens after two years, but what should happen is that the program becomes permanent. Free tuition beyond high school is already the norm in most of the best systems around the world.

Maine’s emphasis, and perhaps over-emphasis, on funding primary and secondary education is one place to look for opportunities for efficiency. A 2007 attempt to consolidate districts while leaving schools intact was botched.

Instead of a much smaller number of administrative units, Maine still has more than 200 principals overseeing districts with a crazy patchwork of different organizational structures.

There’s probably little enthusiasm for another round of reorganization, but the state should at least try. With almost a third of public spending going to elementary and secondary schools, the state must ensure that dollars aren’t wasted.

Who knows? It might work well enough to then take higher education through the University of Maine system. But that’s another story for another day.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first book, Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible, is now out in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

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