These facts recently cited by Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary, and Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, provides sobering evidence that it is time to change the way we approach learning in the U.S.:

  • One quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time.
  • Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year.
  • Seventy-five percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.
  • Since 1973, we have moved from one adult for every 14 students to one adult for every eight students in schools, and doubled per-pupil spending.
  • Despite these increased resources, our high school scores in math and reading are flat. Our graduation rates have plunged from second in the world to 16th. And our 15-year-olds now rank behind 22 other countries in science and behind 31 in math.

Tom Friedman, in two recent New York Times columns, rightly contends the state of learning in this country creates a threat to our national security. Friedman is also correct in noting that our high level of unemployment is related to this troubling decrease in our educational standings. Our less-well-educated workers are facing stiffer global competition, making it more cost-effective for companies to make products in other countries. And technology advances are destroying low-end jobs and creating more high-end jobs, making it impossible to hire workers with less education to do the high-end work we could still do here.

Maine is facing the same decline in education standings as the nation, and it is us — Maine’s residents — through our elected officials, who must drive the changes necessary to correct this dangerous downward trend.

The responsibility for K-12 education rests with the states under the Constitution. Funding levels clearly show this. Approximately 83 cents of every dollar spent on education derives from state and local levels. The federal government’s share is just 8.3 percent. Encouragingly, the Obama administration is incenting states to make necessary reforms to their education systems through two programs. One is the high-visibility $4.35 billion Race to the Top, the other a $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, called i3.

The Race to the Top competition encourages linking teacher evaluations to student academic performance, aggressively collects data on student outcomes, implements rigorous academic standards and helps to turn around the lowest-performing schools. A prominent component of the competition encourages charter schools.

But Maine is one of only 11 states in the nation not allowing charter schools. Maine’s teacher unions and principals, superintendents and school board associations have consistently opposed legislation to allow these innovative schools to exist. Not surprisingly and as a result, Maine has scored poorly in the first two phases of Race to the Top. Maine ranked 33rd out of 36 applicants in Phase 2. Only Mississippi, Alabama and Montana scored lower. Alabama and Montana, like Maine, have no charter school legislation.

Charter schools are public schools operating outside the existing school bureaucracy. Parents choose which schools to send their children, holding the schools accountable to parents and students needs. If the school isn’t doing a good enough job, their students will stop attending.

In such an environment, innovative approaches to management and instruction are embraced. Teachers are hired, compensated and retained based on performance. Staffing, scheduling and course offerings are open to experimentation constrained by market acceptance, rather than bureaucratic procedures and union contracts. Each school’s revenue is earned based on performance, not allocated based on enrollment. Teachers are rewarded based on performance, not paid based on the current metrics of years in the system and degrees attained. Years in the system and degrees attained are not accurate measures of  how well a teacher does his or her job.

While adoption of Charter School legislation is only one step in the direction of structural reform of our state’s education system, it is the necessary first step. Charter schools give parents direct control over how their individual share of tax dollars are spent on their child’s education. So empowered, parents gain new awareness of their responsibility for making sure their child learns. And as Tom Friedman says, “learning is the way up.”