Maine: The way out of staters say life should be

So I’ve changed my mind about one of the referendum questions. Months ago I wrote in support of adding a 3 percent tax on households earning over $200,000 to support classroom learning in Maine public schools. The question will be #2 on the November ballot, and is intended to fulfill the voters’ wishes to have the state fund 55 percent of education, another referendum question from 2003.

Unfortunately as I was researching the finances of an organization supporting the marijuana legalization question (which I will get to in a future post), I noticed that the group supporting Question 2 has taken a $300,000 contribution from the National Education Association, which is a teachers union.

That observation led me to check out some of the reports for other organizations supporting referendum questions in Maine this election cycle. The only question that doesn’t appear to rely on what I would consider excessive sums of out of state money is Question 5, a proposal to establish ranked choice voting in Maine.

My concern about out of state influence in our political process started when I was looking into the clean elections question in 2015.  I disagreed with how supporters were characterizing the proposal and found the amount of money, especially out of state money, spent on behalf of the question to be obscene.  

3/4 of the $1.3 million raised for the clean elections question came from out of staters — which means the campaign spent roughly one dollar for every person in Maine. And, ironically, the 127th Legislature ignored the outcome, just like they and other legislatures have ignored the 2003 vote on school funding.

Can’t we have a conversation about issues with each other here in Maine for less? Our state is scraping the bottom of the economic barrel by many measures, so it just seems like there are better ways to uplift our state, each other, and our economy with such large sums of money. What a waste to put such sums into referenda our elected officials ignore and into the campaigns for elected officials who ignore the will of the people.

I have also posted about the amounts of out of state and special interest money being funneled through our elected officials via their leadership PACS.

Further, Maine is unique as our welcome slogan suggests:  Maine, the way life should be. I’m beginning to worry that our new slogan is: Maine, the way out of staters tell us life should be because we can’t seem to think for ourselves nor can we elect leaders who are willing to progress our own interests.

Welcome to Maine sign. Pixabay stock photo.

Welcome to Maine sign. Pixabay stock photo.

In the case of Question 2 this fall, I would have loved to support it because I support teachers and am a firm believer that education is our hope for the future. I also think the legislature should have honored voters wishes to have the state fund 55 percent of public education back in 2003.  However, that no Maine legislature has done so and that we are still trying to work that out is no business of the NEA.

Seeing the NEA contribution reminded me of how much I think teachers’ unions are part of the problem with education, not part of the solution.

Many will disagree, but I think the first step toward improving the caliber of eduction is getting rid of the federal Department of Education and the NEA and its local affiliates. Has anyone seen the salaries for Maine Education Association staff? There’s an administrative assistant there making $74,974 in a state where the mean wage for a high school teacher is $48,440. The total compensation for the executive director and the deputy executive director is over $250,000.

I’m all for giving teachers increased salaries as soon as they stop wasting money on their union staff’s salaries. Further, I’ve long been in agreement (shudder at the thought) with Governor LePage regarding the number of superintendents in Maine and that unnecessary expense. Other steps for cost savings in education that could go directly into instruction?

We need to get over all the standardized testing crap — what a waste of resources and a cash cow for the companies that develop and score these tests. Next comes some simple measures like eliminating at least half of all the teacher workshop days and early release days from our school calendar. I can’t remember if it was last year or the year before, but I tracked the first 8 weeks of school and only two of those weeks were full day, five day weeks.

The other six were partial weeks because of Monday holidays and the monthly workshop and early release days. Not only is this kind of schedule counterproductive for learning, it seems tremendously wasteful to run buses and facilities for a three hour day once a month. Money wasted plus idle time for children and teens equals a subpar educational system — to say nothing of the havoc such schedules cause for working parents.

Want kids to learn? Keep them in school full days, all week. Want to prepare them for work and college? Keep them in school full days, all week.

It’s hard not to feel like the more money we pour into education and education legislation, the more we are actually pouring into unions, administrators, private companies, and government agencies that don’t seem to improve the quality of education. If educators want me to vote in favor of sending more money to our schools, they need to break free of a union that seems to value its officers and assistants more than the teachers the union represents.

If school districts want more money, they need to look at their own administrative costs first, then ask for more.

And if Mainers want more from our elected officials and our referendum process, we need to figure out how to get all this out of state money out of our politics.

Endnote: On the report showing the $300,000 NEA contribution, I also noticed that the group Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools paid money to two sitting Brunswick school board members for “organizing school board support for ballot campaign.” I left a message for the board chair to find out about the appropriateness of receiving such payments, but haven’t heard back. If time and interest allow, I will also attempt to reach the board members themselves.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.