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How long will we continue to let the 'M' in Maine stand for mediocrity?
Other states focus their spending on results, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they get them.

I spent a few days last week in Madison, Wis. It is a delightful city, with many of the characteristics of Portland.

Madison is about the same size as Portland and shares our proximity to water. Not the ocean, of course, but two lovely large lakes that border the center of town.

There is one big difference. In the center of town, along the lakefront, is the home campus of the University of Wisconsin. The campus blends well with the town.

Particularly noteworthy is the way the university has managed its campus, allowing almost no building along its several-mile-long waterfront.

Even more noteworthy is the importance of the university to the economy of Madison. When in session, the university has more than 45,000 students, many in a series of strong graduate programs.

The university has a top 10 national ranking in research and development activity. All of this gives a significant boost to the local and the state economy.

By comparison, Wisconsin's per capita GDP ranks 25th in the nation compared with Maine's ranking of 34th.

I ask myself, why not Portland? Why not Maine? The answer is, of course, that Maine's home university campus is in Orono.

UMaine-Orono has made progress in such areas as attracting R&D dollars to the state, but not anywhere near the scale of Wisconsin.

Ideally, Maine should be devoting more resources to building undergraduate and graduate excellence at both Orono and the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Gorham.

However, we have chronically undersupported these campuses – in part because of chronic overspending of Maine's relatively modest state income base, and in part because of our unique, egalitarian set of seven university campuses, along with seven community college campuses.

In short, we have built a higher education system on the New York state model, but without that state's formidable resources.

Ironically, in the midst of one of the most challenging economic times in memory, the UM system has commissioned a study to identify cost-reduction opportunities, but has specifically excluded the most obvious and appropriate approach – a consolidation of campuses.

At times such as these, I am frustrated by our state's inability to take on fundamental issues such as the restructuring of our higher education system. We are inexorably working ourselves to a situation in which the "M" in Maine stands for "mediocrity."

We have an unsupportable higher education system with mediocre quality and mediocre graduation results.

We pour more money per capita into our K-12 education system than all but a handful of other states in the country, for results that have declinined from top 10 performance 20 years ago to mediocre status, as more states move past us in achievement.

About the only area in which we are not mediocre is in government aid to the disadvantaged.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times examined variations in different forms of government aid across the country. In the six measures of aid they assessed, Maine was the only state, eclipsing even New York state, that was in the top 10 on five of these six measures.

On the one hand, we should be pleased that we are providing a good safety net for Maine people in these difficult economic times.

On the other hand, how do we have the resources to do what even much richer states such as New York and Connecticut can't do?

We need to ask ourselves if it is an altogether good thing that one in four Maine people are on Medicaid, the medical insurance system for low-income people.

Maine's greatest longer-term need is to spur economic growth. With economic growth comes increasing income. With increasing income, the choice between higher education or Medicaid is easier to resolve.

Just now we are stuck in a muddle of mediocrity. Let's put a patch here and there in the university system. Let's not disrupt any major program eligibilities in Medicaid. Let's not close or consolidate any K-12 schools. Let's defer all these decisions to someone else at some later time.

Maine's aging population, its out-migration of 18-to-30-year-olds, its declining K-12 student population, its disappointing performance in college graduation rates – all of these factors suggest that deferring tough decisions is a continuing recipe for mediocrity.

Is this what Maine people want – M for mediocrity? A state in which those who have resources make their Maine address only good in the summer? Let us hope not.

Correction

In last Tuesday's column, I quoted my hair stylist's view that haircuts and related services would have sales taxes applied to them under the current tax-reform proposal (LD 1088). However, such services are not among the additional items proposed to be taxed.