Saturday, September 29, 2007

Opportunity Maine to boost education

Far too often, good programs become law but then stagnate. That is not happening with Opportunity Maine by Clifford Ginn, lawyer and president of Opportunity Maine & Justin Alfond, state director of the League of Young Voters and treasurer of Opportunity Maine

As the legacies of two of the best-known business leaders and philanthropists in the state, we both now live, work and play in Maine because of its people, its unique sensibility, and because our roots here run deep.

From an early age, we learned from our families that education is a pathway to future choices and success. Our family legacies are firmly planted on the foundation of giving to improve education and encourage students to excel in Maine. Educational philanthropy is one the highest expressions of our families’ values.

It’s a legacy of which we are proud, and a tradition that we have committed ourselves to continue. That’s why we are among the founders and leaders of Opportunity Maine, scheduled to hold a Bangor-area open house Oct. 11 at the Children’s Discovery Museum.

By now, most people in the state have heard about the Opportunity Maine success story. Almost two years ago, concerned community leaders and students came together to address what was becoming an epidemic in Maine and throughout the nation — the rising cost of tuition, the downsizing of loan assistance programs, and massive amounts of accumulated student debt. In Maine’s rapidly changing economy, those barriers deny economic opportunity to laid-off workers, mothers wishing to enter the workplace, and those who simply need training to compete in our traditional and emerging industries. At the same time, Opportunity Maine’s founders and many other Mainers recognize that an educated workforce is the No. 1 predictor of economic growth and high incomes.

The program’s founders believed that the best way to address these problems is to make the prospect of loan repayment less daunting. And we succeeded! After collecting 73,000 signatures and gaining the support of business, labor, educational and civic leaders throughout the state, we were ready to put the question before Maine voters. Instead, Maine lawmakers recognized that our bill couldn’t wait any longer. With a unanimous vote in the Maine House, a three-fourths vote in the Senate, and the Governor’s enthusiastic signature, Maine’s elected leaders committed themselves to a long-term investment in Maine’s people, workforce and economic future.

Now anyone who attends a Maine college (public or private) and lives and works in Maine after graduation is eligible to claim a large tax credit to help pay their student loans. What’s more, businesses who pay an employee’s loans can take the credit for themselves.

Opportunity Maine will help Mainers of all ages to earn college degrees, and will attract people from other states to attend our colleges and settle here afterward. As the proportion of degree holders in our work force increases, businesses will increasingly start up, grow and locate here. Meanwhile, Maine businesses can offer employees a substantial benefit, at no cost, that is unavailable from out-of-state competitors.

Far too often, good programs become law but then stagnate. That is not happening with Opportunity Maine. When it comes to giving back to Maine, one of the important things we have learned is that it’s not enough to pledge support; you must follow through. The work of Opportunity Maine is far from done.

In the coming weeks, Opportunity Maine and its supporters will engage people throughout the state about the importance of supporting our higher education program. From an event next week featuring a trifecta of Maine governors — Baldacci, King and McKernan — pledging their bi-partisan support for Opportunity Maine, to the Bangor open house featuring University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, we’re marketing Opportunity Maine to make sure that it succeeds. Chambers of Commerce, labor unions, educational organizations and others are all reaching out to their members to inform them about Opportunity Maine and to invest them in its success.

But it’s not just politicians and business leaders who recognize the importance of implementing this first-in-the-nation program effectively; a vast network of students is currently spending their days and nights talking to other students about Opportunity Maine and how the program will benefit them for years to come.

Just like our parents and our grandparents, we believe that Maine is the best place in the nation to work, raise a family and have fun. But we also know that Maine can be a challenging place to do so.

Opportunity Maine will make living in Maine easier by expanding educational opportunities, reducing debt for students and families, and building a skilled work force that reflects the unique aspects that Maine has to offer. As we begin to raise our families here in Maine, we look forward to encouraging our children to consider Maine their home. With the success of Opportunity Maine and other programs designed to make college more affordable and to grow the economy, we’re confident that Maine will become an even more appealing place to plant their roots.

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