April 01, 2020

Affordable education in Maine’s future?

It is not surprising that recent state elections have focused on the issue of expanding economic opportunity for Maine citizens. Maine’s economy, like the nation’s, has seen its fair share of cyclical trends, but over the last generation Maine has lost a disproportionate number of high-paying manufacturing jobs. Neither manufacturing nor natural resource industries can be expected to carry the burden of future growth. What strategies can Maine employ to foster sustainable growth and to preserve our quality of community life?

Strengthening our human capital, the educational resources of our work force, becomes all the more imperative. A coalition of Maine students, workers and social activists, united under the banner of Opportunity Maine, is seeking signatures for a 2007 citizens’ initiative on higher education This initiative proposes a tax credit to repay tuition costs for those who remain in Maine after graduation. The proposal not only opens a needed debate about state economic development but also may have positive spillover effects on the broader tone and nature of our politics.

Though it is a mantra of much of the business establishment that low taxes drive economic development, most of the scholarly literature shows that the education of the work force is a larger factor in business location decisions. When it comes to worker education, Maine is doing some things right. The state has the highest high school graduation rate in the country. That fact reflects the importance Maine citizens attribute to education and a broad citizen commitment – however imperfectly executed in practice – to equalize educational resources.

Yet Maine’s success at the high school level highlights its greatest educational failure. We have the lowest rate of post-high school degree attainment in New England. Maine workers are 30 percent less likely to have post-high school degrees than workers in New England as a whole, and their average income is 30 percent below the New England average.

The state’s dismal post-secondary school record is not a consequence of the poor preparation of Maine students or their lack of hard work. The relative decline in Maine incomes, the growing cost of higher education and declining levels of federal support make higher education unaffordable for too many poor and working-class families.

Maine problems are compounded because its low-wage economy forces many of those who do obtain their bachelor’s or associate degrees to leave the state in order to pay off their tuition debts. Maine is caught in a vicious circle. It can’t attract many of the best jobs because too many of its educated workers seek greener pastures elsewhere; and because it offers fewer opportunities to recent graduates, they must move. Much of what the state invests in higher education ends up fostering economic development elsewhere.

A program like that being promoted by Opportunity Maine would start to break the vicious circle. Since Maine lags so far behind its rival New England states in post-secondary education, it could reasonably anticipate large gains over a five- to 10-year period from a program that would make education more affordable and lure more college graduates to remain in the state. These graduates would in turn pay taxes to the state. Even under conservative assumptions such a program could be expected to pay for itself in less than a decade.

Opportunity Maine’s initiative petition reminds me of an earlier piece of very successful federal policy, the GI Bill. Political scientist Theda Skocpol points out in “The Missing Middle” that Americans do and will support government programs when they speak to widely recognized social needs and grow out of broadly based political movements.

Among other things the GI Bill made it easier for a generation of returning veterans to attend college, an accomplishment that would have been beyond the reach of many working-class soldiers of that generation. That generation’s educational attainments combined with expansive commitments to rebuild housing and transportation after the war contributed to both a demand for and supply of productive workers.

Opportunity Maine speaks to a significant state need and has already attracted the interest of a wide spectrum of the business and labor community. One of its most desirable spillover effects may be that it also attracts the effort and enthusiasm of young adults, those 18- to 25-year-olds who historically have had relatively low levels of participation in the political process. This initiative is not a panacea.

In the long run, economic development also requires more attention to Maine’s energy and transportation infrastructures, livable wages that help sustain high levels of demand and efforts to foster the best business practices. Nonetheless, this initiative could both increase opportunities in the next decade and demonstrate the role that democratic activism and citizen initiatives can play in enactment of sound public policies needed to sustain a healthy private sector.

Interested citizens can contact Opportunity Maine (www.opportunitymaine.org or call 567-3074) for further information.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to jbuell@acadia.net.

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