The Smart Money: The education of the state of Maine Part One

Posted Wednesday, February 6, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The education of the state of Maine Part One

by Gina Hamilton

In the proposed curtailment order, a good percentage of the cuts were taken from education. This isn't a surprise, particularly. If cuts must be made, the two major cost centers in state government naturally bear much of the burden, just because that's where the money goes.

Historically, towns and cities have picked up a disproportional share of education funding, which was paid for by local property tax. This has led to significant differences in the quality of education in wealthy communities versus less affluent communities. In an attempt to solve the educational inequity, the people of Maine passed Question 1 in June of 2004 to require that the state cover at least 55 percent of educational funding.

The state has never actually paid its 55 percent in the eight years since the people's referendum passed, although it's come close in some years. The Legislature in 2005, through a law known as LD 1, amended the referendum to say the state would ramp up to 55 percent over four years, hitting the target in fiscal year 2010, using a formula called the Essential Programs and Services (EPS), which wouldn't pay for everything a school wanted or needed, but would cover basic educational costs. An estimated 80 percent of the state’s school districts currently spend over that amount.

Most of the "extras" are things like extracurricular programs in arts and intramural sports, school newspapers and literary magazines, drama, foreign language, field trips, and so on. These "extras" can still be paid for by towns like Cape Elizabeth, and not so much by towns like Millinocket, so the goal of the referendum ... a more equitable school system ... is still out of reach for many Maine students.

Then, in 2010, the state said it couldn't afford to meet the 55 percent requirement at all.

Currently, the biennial budget that ends in June has local municipalities paying $1,042,466,969 for education, to the state's $895,000,000. If the state were obeying the law and paying its full 55 percent, its share would have been roughly $1,065,000,000. This represents a loss to the municipalities of $170,000,000. Obviously, this is not small change, and cutting more deeply ... a cut to education through the Governor's curtailment order, of $12.58 million through the rest of this fiscal year, and deep cuts proposed in his 2014-15 budget ... will leave most of the burden for education on local communities.

And should the Governor's plan to suspend revenue sharing somehow pass the legislature, the towns will be so strapped that they won't be able to afford to finance schools without massive property and local sales tax hikes, leading to all kinds of local economic devastation.

Already, a school district in Northport is at the end of its tether. Unable to raise funds from the citizens of the town by borrowing, the curtailment cuts may mean that the town's schools will close for a month over spring break, forcing students to finish attending school through the summer, when the new fiscal year budget is finally approved.

For most towns, it will mean curtailment of most extracurricular activities and sports programs, and foreign language, art, music, drama, and physical education classes ... in other words, the coursework and after school activities most students enjoy and want to demonstrate on their college applications.

It's hard to imagine graduation rates and college acceptance rates rising in such a scenario, and if business interests can be believed, a major reason for failing to locate in Maine is the lack of skilled and prepared workers with appropriate education and degrees.

Like roads and bridges, education is and should be strongly considered a type of infrastructure for our future economic growth. It is not a luxury, nor is it something we can assume will happen whether we choose to pay for it or not. If Maine wants an economy in ten years, it will bite the bullet and pay for the education of its young people now, even if it means raising taxes on those who can best afford it to pay for it.

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