Alumni Feature: Representative Mary Nelson
Recently re-elected State Representative Mary P. Nelson (D - Falmouth) has dedicated much of her life to social justice issues, the arts, higher education, and bettering the lives of Maine residents through extensive volunteering, committee work, memberships on various boards, and more. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history and music from Smith College, and her master’s degree in public policy and management with a concentration in growth management from the Muskie School in 1988. Rep. Nelson is a member of the Education and Cultural Affairs committee in the Maine legislature.
Rep. Nelson grew up in Seattle, daughter of Boeing aeronautical engineer Maynard Pennell, originally from Skowhegan, Maine. From Seattle, Rep. Nelson moved to Massachusetts to attend Smith College, where she met her husband, Maine native Kenny Nelson. After living and working in Boston for 15 years, the Nelsons moved back to Kenny’s home town of Falmouth in 1980 to raise their three sons.
Current Public Policy and Management student Megan Quirk recently met with Rep. Nelson to discuss her viewpoints on education policy, access to education and jobs for low-income individuals and families, her connection to Maine and the Muskie School, and some of her public service achievements. A selection of questions and answers from the conversation is presented here.
Megan Quirk: What brought you to the Muskie School?
Rep. Mary Nelson: Education has always been a high priority for me, starting with my grandparents. I graduated from college in 1965, so it was 20 years between the time I graduated from college and entered Muskie. I had been raising a family. I worked for five years after college, and I was active in the Brookline town meetings in Massachusetts where we lived and chair of the Conservation Commission. When we moved up here, I was president of the Smith Alumni Association and I did a lot of that kind of policy work, and then I was elected to the Falmouth Town Council. I just felt at that point I wanted to get another degree beyond my bachelor’s degree. They had just started the Muskie program, and I have always been interested in public policy, so I decided to go back to school, which was a shock after all that time.
MQ: Are there particular education policies in place in Maine that you think are really helping?
MN: Well, there are particular places. There’s a place called Educare Central Maine in Waterville, which is an absolutely fabulous preschool right next to the George Mitchell Elementary School. This is a community that has a lot of poverty in it; there are also some children in the program who are not Head Start qualified or not poor, which is helpful to have some economic diversity. Parents have to be involved in the program, so parents learn how to nurture their child and the child gets an extraordinary education there. All of the classrooms have immediate access to the outdoors, so they can go in and out from classrooms. It’s just a really spectacular center for early childhood education, and it’s doing a wonderful job. It has some public funding because it has Head Start funding, but the building was privately funded by a large gift from Warren Buffett's sister and Joan and Billy Alfond, who raised their family in Waterville – we won’t be building too many more of those until we can find that kind of money. We can learn from that example, what our other preschool programs or other child development programs should be providing and offering. It takes money, that’s one of the big problems, but the payback is terrific. You don’t realize it in one biennial budget; you realize it ten years from now when the incarceration rate goes down, or 20 years from now when these kids graduate from college and get good jobs, rather than not graduating from high school and being a drain on society because they can’t hold a decent job.
MQ: What are some general ways the educational system in Maine could be improved?
MN: I think one of the areas in which we have a lot of work to do is how we integrate computer learning and technology into our education system effectively. Of course, Angus King was the one who introduced the laptop program into our middle schools, which was great. I think that’s ideal. I don’t know whether there can be guidance from the federal government or whether it’s really a more local thing, trying to figure out what we can do as a state to be more helpful. Others could do what Falmouth does where they have computer carts that go around from room to room so it’s not all limited to a computer lab, and you make the computers available to any kid to take home so that if they don’t have the ability to buy their own, that they are not handicapped because they don’t have access to a computer.
What you have to do is have a whole shift in thinking on how you spend money and where you cut and how to balance that. If you start cutting away the foundations, it seems to me that you will end up always cutting away, because if the foundations aren’t firm, then the other things above are going to start crumbling, and then you’re going to have to spend more and more on those problems. The governor’s budget that was recently released suspends revenue sharing. Revenue sharing is a program that the communities and the legislature put into place 20 or 30 years ago, which said that we have no local option taxes in Maine, no community taxes, but all of the people in Maine pay income taxes and sales taxes to the state, so the communities in the state should be able to share in that income. Obviously, lots of tax dollars go to support education, to support health and human services, to support transportation, to support a lot of other things, but some of them should go directly back to the communities that are responsible for providing their local roads, education, community services. This policy has been chipped away at in hard economic times, and the governor’s budget suspends it entirely. The outcome of that policy is that all communities will have to raise their property tax rate, which is a very regressive tax, or cut important services.
MQ: Last year you participated in the Center for Women Policy Studies’ national seminar on Access to Postsecondary Education for Low Income Women - what were the main takeaways from the seminar?
I’ve served on the governor’s task force on ease of access to postsecondary education, and one of the things that we addressed, not just for women, was how we get more kids in Maine to pursue postsecondary education, either community college, the university, or professional training programs – certificate programs, for instance. Because the reality is that kids will not be able to earn a really good living unless they have some of that additional training. The women’s policy center program was focused on low-income women by and large, and what it demonstrated to me were the challenges of helping low-income people support education for their families and for themselves. There are women who are on TANF, and there are rules about how you have to be looking for a job and trying to get a job. The question is can we get credit for those women who are in training programs who are in school so that they indeed can get a job and get off TANF. You work hard to make sure that the federal government rules and the implementation of those rules in the state are such that they indeed can get rewarded for educational pursuits.
Another thing that I learned was that, for low-income women particularly, there are issues of childcare and abuse. These women often come from very abusive situations and they do not have access to quality childcare for their children, and so they are really handicapped in more ways than you can possibly imagine in how they can actually get themselves to school. I think it’s important that we try to, for those who want to help themselves, put in place things that are barrier-free so that they can help themselves, that we put in that safety net for them, safe homes, adequate food, and access to healthcare. We also need to recognize that education is indeed a job if you’re getting ready to earn money, and that that is what you have to do before you can actually be a good employee. Also, if kids arrive at school from a stressed environment, it’s very hard for them to learn. If they arrive hungry, it’s very hard for them to learn.
The other thing that we really have to focus on is early childhood education. About 90% of the structure of the brain is put into place by the time a child is five years old, and all of those connections and synapses that allow a child to learn are being developed from about six months to three years old. If they’re not made by the time they’re three, then they begin to fall apart, because there’s nothing for them to hook onto because the original connections haven’t been made. There are some studies about the incarceration rate, and you can look at the backgrounds of 16- and 17-year olds who are in the juvenile justice system, and you can trace back and very often these kids did not have the proper nurturing in their early life between zero and five years old.
MQ: Maine was recently voted the worst state in the country for business for the third time by Forbes. How can we change current conditions to attract young entrepreneurs to the state?
MN: I believe that education is the most important economic driver we have. If we don’t have an appropriately trained workforce, then companies aren’t going to be interested in coming here. When you hear about companies coming to Maine, they always talk about the work ethic of Maine workers, and the quality of life, and those are big drivers, so I think we have to make sure that we focus on those and don’t get ourselves so preoccupied with things that are very difficult to change. We can’t change our geography, so transportation issues are what they are. All that we can do is make sure we have good transportation within the state and out of the state, that we provide good roads for trucks and good rail connections, good ports. We can never compete with some of the wealthier states in our tax credits. I just don’t think that we have enough dollars to do that. Some of these states that have done that have found that it didn’t really result in a net gain for them; they just gave away too much. I think that our environmental policies are indeed good for the state because they create a brand that is important for us, but I think that we have to make sure we have smart regulation, and that we don’t overregulate, and that we don’t regulate in a way that’s so time insensitive that it just costs businesses too much money to go through the process. There are other northern states that have a nice quality of life and good workers – New Hampshire and Vermont are not too far away – I think that we have to be sensitive to that issue.
It was interesting – the Maine Development Foundation ran a seminar for legislators the day after we were sworn in, and they talked about economic development and what we can do to encourage it, and they listed things that businesses are looking for in employees. They had a whole list of seven or eight things that they look for – work ethic, showing up on time, dressing properly, computer skills, technical training in a specific area, ability to work in a team. The top of the list was communication. We were at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan recently, and that was just reinforced to me there. You don’t need a college degree to do these jobs on the line of putting together an athletic shoe. But our host said one of the hardest things is if you have an employee who doesn’t know how to learn from the advice that someone’s giving you, or the training, or the criticism. Those communication skills are the most valuable things in a worker, because other things can be taught.
MQ: So, where do those communication skills come from?
MN: I think that’s what we should be teaching all the way through our school system. I think it goes back to the book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That’s certainly a much too simplistic view, but there are a lot of things that you should be learning very early on, about teamwork, about cooperation, and you need to learn to read so that you can read to learn. Children need to be able to read by the third grade. If they can’t read, they are forever handicapped. Other children move along, and they fall further and further behind. I think that the way that you improve your business climate is to make smart investments as a state. I think you invest in your people, and you do that by investing in education.
MQ: Of which public service achievement do you feel most proud?
Well, I’m a Deborah Morton Award winner – UNE names women who have made contributions in their communities and their careers, and I was very proud to get that award. I passed civics legislation, which I think is very important in the state and I’m continuing to work on that to make sure that we graduate kids who understand the society in which they live and how their participation is critical to the survival of a healthy society and a healthy government. I’ve worked on safe school grounds, making sure that we have pesticide-free grounds, especially for little children. It wasn’t my legislation, but we worked very hard to get standards-based education passed in Maine, so that there are proficiencies that have to be demonstrated before you get a high school diploma, trying to address the problem of excessive remediation needs at the community college and university level, so that when kids get out of high school in Maine, they have a diploma, and we know what that diploma means. I worked hard on early childhood education. I worked hard on teacher evaluation because I think that we need to support our teachers, and we need to give them the tools to be able to do what we talked about earlier on, to make use of internet-based learning so that they can be as creative and imaginative in dealing with the learning needs and styles of each individual child. It’s important to give teachers the freedom to do things they know work, and the tools and the training that they need so that they can become even more effective teachers. I’ve never done any of it for the accolades or the awards. I’ve always done what I’ve done because I wanted to do the best I could to make our education system stronger, or to make the business community stronger, and to support our citizens.
MQ: What advice would you offer a current Muskie student who wants to pursue a career in public service?
MN: It seems to me that the more people you talk to, the better public policy you’ll come up with. So if you’re interested in working in public policy, go to the policymakers and ask to sit down with them. If you’re really interested in environmental policy, for example, you should ask them who you should be talking to, go to the organizations that lobby in Augusta, go to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, go to the Maine Audubon Society. Ask them what they are doing, what are the policies that they really want to promote, where the entry points are for people like you, and how you can be helpful to them.