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Report Finds Progress in Maine's Education System, Despite Persistent Achievement Gaps

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public

A new report released Wednesday finds that many aspects of Maine's education system have improved over the past few decades, including access to public preschool and kindergarten. The findings also suggest that students from economically disadvantaged households are still struggling and are not getting the same opportunities as their peers.

The authors of the report  — the business-led education advocacy group Educate Maine — and others, hope that the findings will prompt more investment in education in the upcoming legislative session.

The most promising numbers from the annual "education indicators" report show progress in two particular areas: public access to college and early childhood education. It finds that about 44 percent of Mainers from the ages of 25 to 64 have a credential such as a college degree or professional certificate. That number is below New England’s as a whole, but is a sizable increase from where Maine was a decade ago.

Educate Maine's Executive Director Ed Cervone says that more good news is reported on the pre-school side. Last year, 44 percent of 4-year-olds attended public pre-K in Maine -- more than double the percentage from the year 2000.

"If you're a three- or four-year-old in a quality Pre-K setting, you're going to have better academic success," Cervone says. "Better career success and better life success, and we can document that, in Maine, than if you don't."

A federal grant helped 11 districts launch or expand public preschool four years ago. As part of last year’s state budget, Maine tweaked its funding formula and allowed state money to flow more quickly to public Pre-K programs. That allowed dozens of school districts to launch or expand pre-K.

Yet even with those improvements, the report also highlights a persistent problem that's plagued Maine schools for decades: achievement gaps affecting students from economically disadvantaged households. Standardized test scores such as the national NAEP assessment have demonstrated that, in many cases, those gaps haven't narrowed over the past few decades. The report highlights similar gaps in college enrollment.

Cervone hopes that under a new administration, the state can boost education funding and specifically target students in rural and less-wealthy districts.

"Which is helping to level the playing field for kids who don't have the same opportunities as others," he says. "While allowing locals to figure out how that gets done. Who's involved. And various other things."

The Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers , is also hoping to see more investment under a new administration. That includes having the state fund 55 percent of public K-12 education. Association President Grace Leavitt says she recently visited a district in which a teacher told her that a school nurse was present only three hours per week.

"So, that's just not right," she says. "So having what our kids need, in all of our schools, in the whole state. No matter what the town is. Where they're located."

On the campaign trail, Governor-elect Janet Mills promised to implement universal Pre-K programs across Maine and increase the minimum teacher salary. She’ll have to convince a newly elected legislature to find the funding for those changes in the coming year.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff.