Policy advocate starts Web site on school funds

Posted Feb. 11, 2010, at 10:39 p.m.

As school districts around Maine begin the arduous process of setting budgets for the new fiscal year, the Maine Heritage Policy Center is hoping it can be a resource for school boards, superintendents and the public.

The Portland-based conservative think tank has started GreatSchoolsforME.org, a Web site that MHPC said will make it easier to get access to budget and spending information at the local and state levels, and allow users to compare information across school districts.

Stephen Bowen, the director of the Center for Education Excellence at MHPC, said the information was culled from the Maine Department of Education Web site. Bowen said, however, the budget and spending information is easier to access, read and interpret through the MHPC site.

“I think the state, with the resources they have, is trying to get the data out there, but it’s very spreadsheet heavy,” he said. “As we were going through those spreadsheets we thought, we have to find a way to put all this information in a way where people will understand it.”

Instead of spreadsheets, the MHPC site is based on graphs that illustrate information such as breakdowns of property tax and state funding for education, spending per student, and instruction versus non-instruction spending. The site also lets users compare the information across several districts to provide comparisons among districts of the same size.

GreatSchoolsforME.org grew out of MHPC’s MaineOpenGov.org Web site, which lets users to search for information such as salaries of state employees, retiree pensions and property taxes of different municipalities.

Bowen said people started requesting similar information about school spending. MHPC decided to put the information on its own Web site.

“We almost immediately got feedback that people wanted school spending data and things like that,” he said. “People see us as a source of information, or at least a group that could assemble information in a usable way. … People were saying, I like voting on my school budget, but I get to the polls and I don’t have any comparable data.”

The new Web site also has information about policies related to charter schools and school choice — both issues MHPC has supported in the past — home schooling, special-needs education, public schools and town academies.

The site also links to greatschools.org, a national Web site that has its own rating system and also allows for parent ratings and reviews.

“We could have put up all the test score data and set up a parent review piece, but they already do that,” Bowen said.

MHPC intended to debut the site last fall around the start of the school year, and put it off several times until it went live Wednesday. The timing works out well, however, Bowen said, as schools sit down for budget talks.

“We hope it’s going to be a tool for school board members, citizen activists, superintendents, and everybody,” Bowen said. “They can go in and use it to study where the dollars are going as we confront a very serious challenge, which is how do we deal with state budget cuts.”

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