Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy visited Maine. It was an historic day for the University of Maine and for our state.
It also was a special day for my family.
Dr. Lawrence Cutler was president of the University board of trustees at the time, and my brother Josh and I watched as our father helped confer an honorary degree on the young president.
During the next five decades, Maine's teacher colleges became universities and, along with the Orono campus, parts of the statewide University of Maine System, plus, Maine created five new vocational technical institutes that have become a separate Maine Community College System.
Larry Cutler wouldn’t be encouraged by the 2013 world of public higher education in Maine.
My father would be flabbergasted by the sheer size of the two systems — now comprising 14 different college and university campuses, 17 outreach centers and 75 other learning sites. He’d be floored by the costs of operating them. And he’d be flummoxed by the notion that 1.3 million people should be asked to foot the bill for two separate systems. Most important, he would be deeply disappointed that steeply rising tuition costs are keeping too many of Maine’s high school graduates from getting a college degree.
It’s time to think differently. Do we need and can we afford two separate systems of higher education, with separate administrative costs, separate strategic decision-making and duplicative programs?
It’s time to take a fresh look at education, to get smarter about how we use our resources, and to insist on innovation and reform designed around the needs of students, their families and their communities.
It’s time to merge the university and community college systems into one system that costs less to operate and puts more money into educating Maine’s young people and adults. And we should look at education as a single continuum from pre-K to post-graduate studies, not as a system of silos based on the age of our students.
Here are some other things we should be doing differently or better:
Academic success begins with early childhood education. Getting things right in the early years is easier and much less expensive than trying to fix things later, so let’s make investment in early childhood education a priority.
The single most important ingredient in high quality education is good teaching, so let’s find ways to evaluate and spotlight good teachers, reward them, learn from them and replicate their successful methods.
Maine has one of the shortest school calendars in the nation. Let’s extend the academic calendar by 10 days and better match school calendars with the many summer job opportunities that exist in Maine’s tourism industry.
Schools are the heart of our communities. Instead of misguided attempts to force consolidation, let’s encourage local leaders — in both our smallest towns and our biggest cities — to identify opportunities to be more efficient and effective. Then let’s reward initiatives that make sense.
Let’s re-examine the way we fund public education in Maine in conjunction with a thorough reform of Maine’s taxation structure. What we have isn’t working for anyone, as property taxes are climbing everywhere, and students in Maine’s poorer communities are being penalized disproportionately.
Finally, let’s think as boldly as President Kennedy did. Let’s consider a “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” plan that would allow Maine high school graduates to attend our public colleges and universities tuition-free on the condition that they live and work in Maine and pay the fund back with a minimal percentage of their incomes over 20 years or so following graduation. We shouldn’t be forcing 17-year-olds into student loan debt in order to get an education.
Nothing on that beautiful October day in 1963 foreshadowed the tragedy that unfolded a month later in Dallas, but President Kennedy’s commitment to creating opportunity and dreaming big has stayed with us all these years.
“Let us think of education,” he said, “as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
Let’s reform our outdated education system and then invest anew in a better one, because education remains the best tool we have for helping every youngster in Maine fulfill his or her own aspirations — and for creating a stronger state of Maine.
Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth is an independent candidate for governor.