Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Articles By Peter Mills

Let Them Learn in Ghettos
Kennebec Journal OpEd by Senator Peter Mills
March 14, 2007

Gov. John Baldacci is promoting a dramatic school redistricting plan ostensibly to save money and to quell continuing TABOR- rattlings rampant in our state. But the truth is that consolidation of districts has one virtue above others; and it's not about the money. It's about equity.

The map of Maine is pockmarked with educational ghettos. We have adjoining school districts where teachers are paid $35,000 a year on one side of the line and $45,000 next door. Kids on the poor side get a very different start in life from those on the other.

Our state divides itself into 290 separate school units. In many cases, these are pockets of economic isolation, designed to exploit a local advantage to the detriment of nearby towns.

While some argue that these disparities are the natural outgrowth of local control or freedom of choice, the fact is that only the wealthy have any capacity for choice, a choice to exclude their less fortunate, or less desirable, neighbors. Any significant consolidation, whether to 26 or 76 resulting districts, will greatly diminish this insidious discrimination.

I am disappointed that a majority of my fellow members on the Legislature's Education Committee have failed to meet this challenge, or even to recognize its profundity. What keeps school districts apart has little to do with school colors or football traditions. The differences are too often based on an unspoken undercurrent of class and social distinctions, of cultural divisions and petty snobbery.

Using powerful economic incentives 50 years ago, the Sinclair Act created more than 70 new school districts that eradicated many barriers among neighbors. But when incentives stopped, redistricting died. Since the last major district was formed 40 years ago, we have seen a slow re-Balkanizing of Maine. In the past 20 years, more than two dozen towns have withdrawn from their districts to secure a narrow economic advantage at the expense of children in adjoining towns.

One member of our Education Committee has argued on these pages that the only way to foster consolidation is to let it bubble up from below by local preference. A majority of the committee proposes that the state hire facilitators at a cost of $3.5 million and let them travel around in search of towns to find "partners to dance with." It is argued that this facilitative approach is the only way to make progress because the governor's plan is too "top down," too heavy handed and won't pass political muster.

This argument presents a false dichotomy. The choice is not between mere facilitation on the one hand or executive imposition on the other. There is a third way taught to us by the successful incentives of the Sinclair Act from 1957. Pay money, increase subsidies and help build new buildings in those areas where district consolidation is welcomed.

In the next two years, the governor proposes to raise taxes to spend $106 million additional dollars for K-12 education as the final stages of reaching a 55 percent state funding level. This money will be wasted if we simply spend it on the existing system without demanding improved efficiency and more equal chances for Maine children.

Time is short. The opportunity to apply incentives will soon be gone. The state raised $100 million in additional money for K-12 last year, another $76 million this year and is scheduled to raise another $80 million next year.

If all that goes out the door with no strings attached, the state will have squandered an opportunity to make lasting improvements to a dysfunctional, unfair and expensive system.