RSU 26 Food Service Director Ben Jacobson serves Orono High School students lunch, Oct. 22, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

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Emily Albee has taught Social Studies in RSU 22 for 12 years. She is the 2022 Penobscot County Teacher of the Year and a member of the Maine Education Association.

Serving and surviving as a public school teacher in Maine for two years of the COVID-19 pandemic created innumerable challenges to overcome and problems to solve. Society was drastically reminded of the vital roles schools and educators play providing students equitable access to academic and emotional support, food, internet, and overall life stability. Despite the national divisiveness about education, vitriol spewed at school board meetings, and calls for curriculum censorship, educators continued to rise above the challenges and keep education as their number one priority for students.

Additionally, our legislative and executive leadership in Maine rose above the noise and distractions to secure three vital policy victories for public education in Maine. There may be issues that still divide legislators but historically, we have never seen politicians in Augusta come together like this to support our public schools especially during an extremely tumultuous period. It is time to highlight and celebrate these policies that required bipartisan compromise, leadership, and the practical commitment to education.

After a 17-year effort, the state finally achieved its 55 percent state funding goal for schools for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Properly funded schools allow for the development and whole implementation of learning for our twenty-first century learners. This financial investment is a big picture investment for the infrastructure and development of Maine to train the next generation of innovative thinkers and problem solvers. This allows schools to finally shift away from the imposed expectation on educators to, “do more with less.”

The 55 percent state funding of schools is far from perfect, and we know we must do more especially for communities struggling with property tax increases, reassessment, rising housing prices and general housing uncertainty. Voters of Maine established this goal through a statewide ballot initiative in 2004 (and reaffirmed the goal through a ballot referendum in 2016) and legislators finally met it.

The recently enacted “$40K The First Day” is a law requiring all teachers in Maine to make a minimum of at least $40,000 their first year of teaching. This policy victory begins to address the salary inequities across the state where disparate teaching salaries have long hindered communities from recruiting and retaining teachers. This policy also opens the door at the negotiation table to ensure veteran educators continue to be compensated appropriately with competitive salaries as we are facing unprecedented numbers of educators leaving the classroom.

We know that teachers’ working conditions are the students’ learning conditions. The stunning injustice of passionate and quality teachers choosing between staying in the classroom or switching to other professions to pay their bills and support their families is beginning to be addressed.

Our legislators accomplished a massive policy victory for equity in education by allowing all students in Maine to receive free breakfast and lunch. Students who are hungry cannot learn.

The defining factors of what constitutes struggle for families are ever-changing especially during the pandemic. For decades, the moving target of socioeconomic status and income levels as the determining factor for supporting students in need created another barrier to student success. Our legislators acknowledged a lot of our students needed extra help and they provided access to free food for all students and provided the funding necessary to execute the program without further increasing property taxes.

We owe our state legislators and Gov. Janet Mills gratitude and a round of applause for these accomplishments they achieved for our schools. The journey is just beginning and it is time to continue the policy work for our twenty-first century learners.