Lawmakers in Augusta have found a way to resolve one of their most contentious debates so far this year. And Gov. Paul LePage signed their compromise into law Thursday morning.
As a result, Maine’s tax laws are all but settled for this tax season, clearing the way for businesses and individuals to file their taxes with certainty about which state-level deductions will apply. Some $15 million in additional state aid will also be on its way to the state’s public schools.
It’s a compromise measure with wins for both sides of the aisle, but since it’s a compromise, it’s far from perfect.
The tax side of the package still contains expensive and ineffective tax policy. On the school funding side, lawmakers voted to set up a “Commission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance.” The provision was critical to securing support for additional school funding, but the 15-member panel is likely to needlessly cover ground that policymakers and educators have previously covered in depth.
The first item in the commission’s charge is: “Evaluate the success and shortcomings of the current funding formula for kindergarten to grade 12 education and propose changes to improve the funding formula.” But policymakers, researchers and educators in the state have spent the past four years doing precisely that.
Their conclusion? Basically, Maine’s school funding formula is doing its job. It allocates funding equitably, especially when compared with other states. Overhauling the formula with the objective of relieving property tax burdens is likely to be complicated, expensive and without any guarantee of producing the desired result.
Since Maine’s school funding formula took effect a decade ago, it has been the object of persistent complaints about inequity and opacity, and it has been subject to occasional tweaking, sometimes to satisfy narrow, regional interests. In 2011, for example, lawmakers from rural areas supported successful legislation that redistributed about 2 percent of state education funding from larger, more urban districts to rural districts with fewer students.
The next year, the Legislature ordered an independent analysis of the funding formula to home in on any problems. In response, the California firm Picus and Associates produced a two-part analysis, 491 pages in total, that dug into the various complaints lodged against the funding formula — that the distribution is fundamentally inequitable from region to region, for example, and that it results in low-income areas funding a greater portion of local school budgets than they can afford through local property taxes.
The takeaway? “Overall, Maine has designed a school funding system that provides [school administrative units] with an equitable resource distribution.” The formula provides “roughly the same level of revenue for students with similar characteristics,” the consultants concluded.
Certainly, the issue of low-income residents shouldering high property tax burdens — primarily due to local school budgets — is a real one. But the funding formula isn’t the appropriate venue for solving that problem, Picus concluded. Instead, the state should double down on targeted relief for low-income property tax payers through the state’s circuit breaker and homestead exemption programs (programs LePage has repeatedly attempted to cut in budget proposals).
Solving the problem through the funding formula “would be difficult and likely very expensive,” the consultants wrote.
When lawmakers formed a “Commission to Study the Adequacy and Equity of Certain Cost Components of the School Funding Formula” in 2014 to build on the Picus analysis, their final report recommended additional grants for school districts so they could afford to start up preschool and summer programs and fund teacher training, but no major funding formula revisions.
It’s unreasonable to think yet another commission looking into the funding formula will discover anything different. If schools have insufficient resources, it’s due to overall funding levels — which have never reached the 55 percent prescribed in law — and how they’re deploying their resources.
What Maine needs instead is to focus on a long-term strategy to boost student achievement, especially among low-income students. The state and property tax payers have generally increased the amount they spend on schools in recent years without seeing comparable improvements in student achievement.
Solving that problem will require resources and focus, but it’s a problem Maine can’t afford to ignore.