Unintended consequences

In his novel “Cat’s Cradle,” Kurt Vonnegut introduced a fictional element called ice-nine. It’s an ice that does not melt until the temperature hits 114.4 F. When ice-nine comes into contact with any kind of water, it freezes that water solid. Ice-nine was invented by the novel’s Defense Department so that infantry units would no longer have to drive or march through mud. Just apply a little ice-nine to the rice paddy and — presto! — solid ground. Unfortunately, the ice-nine effect is contagious, and because most of the Earth and most of the people on it are mostly water, ice-nine brings about the end of the world … a favorite Vonnegut theme.

Unintended consequences come about when the implementation of a worthwhile idea is insufficiently rehearsed. Take Gov. Paul LePage’s 2018-2019 biennial budget. The budget dramatically changes the way the state funds public education. The jaw-dropper is the governor’s wish to create a single, statewide teacher contract. Stated simply, a teacher in Otis would be paid the same as a comparably experienced teacher in Cape Elizabeth.

By leveling the playing field, teachers in small, rural districts would be compensated the same as teachers in bustling, urban districts. This would give small towns the opportunity to pay a competitive wage. They could hire and retain teachers without fear that they, after a year or two, would be seduced by better pay in southern Maine. Teacher retention means continuity of instructors and instruction. And that means stability and a better educational opportunity for Maine’s young people in districts lacking the population and resources of wealthier communities.

Bonus benefit: Negotiating a single contract statewide would end the costly and redundant district-by-district bargaining process. Millions saved could be channeled into classrooms.

Enter ice-nine.

What will it cost? It seems unlikely that the teachers in Falmouth will accept a pay cut in order to raise salaries for the faculty at Dedham Elementary and Aurora’s Airline School. A rising tide lifts all boats, but this one could be a tsunami.

Where will the money come from? Which state taxes will be increased?

Does a statewide contract mean the Maine Education Association will represent every teacher in the state? Should bargaining talks sour, will a statewide teachers strike be possible?

Will regional cost of living be taken into account?

What happens to local control? Anything? The loss of local control led Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine to withdraw from the regional school unit former Gov. Baldacci forced on the state’s school systems.

State Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County), chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, recently wrote that “ZIP codes shouldn’t matter when it comes to quality in education.” He is right. And in terms of the governor’s objective — equality of opportunity — LePage is right.

It’s up to the Legislature to proceed with care and pray for the ability to see around corners as they work on the governor’s proposal. Even though the goal is admirable, there are a lot of moving parts. And the slope is covered with ice.

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