December 18, 2017
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Mainers are pretty smart. They clearly demanded more school funding.

By Benjamin Brigham, Special to the BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Longfellow Elementary School fourth grade teacher Sarah Rasmussen talks about what moods a poem can set with her class in Portland in a January photo.

After teaching in Maine for more than 10 years, I’m convinced most Mainers are pretty smart, especially when it comes to practical matters. After hundreds of years of staying warm in the winter, Mainers know that when you’re trying to start a fire, it really helps if the wood is dry.

Unfortunately, as the Legislature negotiates the state budget, there appears to be a real disconnect between the numbers in their spreadsheets and the real-life world of Mainers and Maine students and what it takes for them to succeed.

In their budget negotiations, some lawmakers are trying to sell us wet wood.

Last fall, voters approved Question 2, which had several key elements to it: fully funding the state’s share of public education; progressive taxation in which the wealthy pay a little more; and protecting property taxpayers from cost shifts and cuts in essential services. To ensure the future success of our students, we must make certain all of these elements are included in the budget.

But that’s only part of the equation.

We also must address the economic conditions that hold kids back. If the Legislature cuts vital services that provide for the health and well-being of poor kids, Maine educators become social workers, who are just trying to keep our kids whole enough to make it through the day. This is not a recipe for student success.

Some lawmakers who want to repeal the 3 percent surcharge on high-income earners also are looking to other places in the budget to make cuts, including programs that provide health care, food and other assistance to children.

Recent Maine policy has already led to terrible outcomes for too many children.

It’s hard to imagine, but in a time of steady economic recovery, one in five young children is living in poverty, barely getting by without the basics.

We’re not doing enough for these kids, and we cannot afford to hurt them more.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that kids who come to school hungry, who have experienced homelessness, and who don’t have a safe and secure place to call home face enormous challenges in the classroom.

The best teachers in the world aren’t miracle workers. Hungry, hurting kids struggle to learn at the same rate as their well-fed, wealthy peers, and no teacher is going to change that fact.

Children’s Health Watch in Boston, in research published in 2015, found that “food insecurity can damage children’s health and brain development years before they enter a classroom. By kindergarten, food-insecure children often are cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their food-secure peers.”

Under the governor’s proposed budget, 1,500 kids would lose support to meet basic needs from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which helps poor families and kids meet their basic needs. Head Start would lose about $1.2 million, money that helps prepare students for academic success.

There is no question that Maine should fund 55 percent of the cost education as demanded by voters.

But it’s also common sense that those new education dollars not come at the expense of poor families and poor children.

Some politicians in Augusta seem to be under the mistaken impression that voters aren’t very smart, that we’re easily fooled and didn’t really know what we were voting for last November.

I don’t believe any of those things are true.

Voters recognize that we have a problem with education funding in the state that hurts both students and people who pay property taxes.

They voted to ask wealthy Mainers to pay just a little bit more so that kids would have the best shot at success in the classroom without shifting new costs to towns and cities. By defining the funding source, voters made clear they didn’t want to take from the poor to fund education.

Voters were clear. It’s only some politicians who are confused about what’s best for our state.

Mainers are pretty smart. We want education to be funded, and we want our kids to be fed, happy and healthy. Our budget must include full funding for education financed by a tax on annual incomes over $200,000, as approved by voters last November. It is the dry wood we need to light the fire that will lead to a brighter future for our students and our state.

Benjamin Brigham is a 2017 PBS Digital Innovator. He also was the 2015 Washington County Teacher of the Year.

 


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