Last week, I said Eliot Cutler’s attention to the details of the budget weeds and his willingness to tell us what we need to hear are refreshing. We need this kind of leadership to lower the cost of living and doing business in Maine.

Cutler’s approach is consistent with the thinking of conservative-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks, who describes a movement across the country whereby citizens are supporting candidates and elected officials, “who can happily spend hours in the budget weeds looking for efficiencies,” and in doing so “holding almost nothing sacrosanct.”  Cutler’s approach is also consistent with liberal-leaning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who maintains that we need third-party candidates who say: “I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”

Beyond lowering the cost of living and doing business in Maine, Cutler recognizes we must also put our public schools on a different trend.

David Flanagan of the Muskie School of Public Policy shared these startling facts in a presentation to the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce in February:

  • Between 1996 and 2007, the number of Maine K-12 students decreased by 16 percent, while the per-pupil expenditure grew 451 percent.
  • Maine spends 25 percent more per pupil more than the national average per-pupil expenditure.
  • Maine’s student-to-teacher ratio is 25 percent lower than 10 states more sparsely populated.
  • Maine is ranked third in the nation for the percentage of students classified for special education.
  • Support staff now outnumber teachers in Maine schools. In 1980, teachers outnumbered support staff by a ratio of 2 to 1.
  • Maine’s national ranking in reading proficiency has slipped from fourth to 10th place and in mathematics from first to  24th between 1996 and 2007, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Flanagan summarized: “The number of students is down over the last decade. The academic performance indicators are trending down, as well. But K-12 spending is up, way up.”

Flanagan said this disturbing trend is the result of unconscious, non-deliberative actions on the part of state governance. He said strong leadership is required, leadership dedicated to structural reform and not cafeteria-style, ad-hoc approaches, such as wage freezes, employees paying a greater share of health-insurance premiums and reduced bus runs.

Our gubernatorial choices in this election are clear. Of the three top-contending candidates, one offers simple bravado, one offers staying the course and Eliot Cutler offers experience and clarity.

Cutler’s experience includes successful policy-making efforts, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act when serving with former Maine Sena. Edmund Muskie. He also served as an associate director in the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Cutler’s plans for a zero-based budget approach, a practice whereby every budget line item is assumed to be zero and then built up from zero on a cost/benefit basis, is necessary to undertake structural reform in our state’s education system. His commitment to budget detail, along with his willingness to tell us what we need to hear, is required to reverse the long-term upward trends in spending, and downward trends in student performance.

He is the choice if we are to increase options for parents, increase accountability on the part of parents, teachers and administrators, increase teacher pay and increase the amount of time our students spend in rigorous academic activity.