January 23, 2020
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Will state government finally keep its education funding promise?

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Senator Emily Cain, D-Orono, urges her colleagues to vote in favor of overriding the governor's budget veto Wednesday.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite months of rhetoric about how no one likes the two-year state budget enacted by the Legislature this week, it’s seen by many as a document that’s about as friendly as possible to education.

It’s so friendly that it demands an increase in education funding over the next decade or so of $180 million-$200 million in order to abide by a never-satisfied law requiring the state to pay 55 percent of the cost of education. But whether that will actually happen is a question for future lawmakers.

Public schools will receive more in general purpose aid for the next two years than they do in the current one, which was the result of lawmakers adding about $28 million more in public school funding than was proposed by a governor, who has consistently made education his administration’s top priority. The fact that Democrats and many Republicans agreed to raise the sales, meals and lodging tax rates partially to pay for that increase is testament to the attitude toward public schools at the State House.

“We had to prioritize education, without question,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. “If we’re serious about growing our economy, that starts with investing in education.”

Cain, a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee who led the fight to bolster education funding in the short term, went a step further by negotiating language into the budget that aims to keep education at the forefront for years to come. In a 700-page document that’s awash in numbers, the implications of those few words are considerable: That the Legislature will ramp up education spending every year by 1 percent until state funding reaches 55 percent of the total cost.

The budget document goes on to say that no new programs or initiatives will be established for K-12 education unless the per-year increase is funded first. Though firm numbers are impossible to determine for a range of reasons, including local spending decisions that will be made in the future, increasing the state’s share of education funding by 1 percent a year would inflate state subsidies for schools by approximately $20 million annually. At that rate it would take about 8-10 years to achieve 55 percent at an additional cost over today’s funding level of about $160 million-$200 million.

“I hope that’s sustainable,” said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Education Committee. “The real problem is the economy and its effect on state revenues.”

Since 2004, when Mainers voted that state government would pay at least 55 percent of K-12 education costs, lawmakers have been attacked continually for their failure to meet that threshold. Depending on how you calculate it — namely, whether teacher retirement costs are in the mix — education funding in the fiscal year that begins Monday will reach somewhere between 47 and 50.5 percent of the total cost of the Department of Education’s essential programs and services formula, which dictates what the state says should be included in a local school district’s budget.

With the budget enacted, the 55 percent language is now in law for a second time, though in reality it amounts to little more than words on paper. One reason for that is the Maine Constitution bars the Legislature from enacting any law that financially obligates future Legislatures.

“We’ve heard promises like this in the past,” said Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association. “Depending on who gets elected in the future, I think we’ll have some work to do. We’re going to continue to work with the Legislature to keep them to their promise.”

Jim Rier, the Department of Education’s finance chief, said the 55 percent language will “be a debatable item” in future years — and not just because of the Constitution. A major question around the 55 percent law has always been: 55 percent of what?

“It’s interesting language to have in a budget,” said Rier. “When you look at the referendum in 2004, it would have said the state would contribute 55 percent of the cost of education. It didn’t say what was included or not, though there were assumptions, I’m sure.”

Since 2004, significant costs have been injected into the EPS formula, including the cost of special education and teacher retirement, the latter of which was added to the formula last year. The effect has been that the state can say it is moving closer to 55 percent without increasing general purpose aid to local schools. According to Rier’s figures, which include the normal cost of teacher retirements, the state will be paying about 50.5 percent of the cost of EPS in fiscal year 2014.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said she saw the 55 percent language in the budget as a moral commitment by lawmakers even if it isn’t a legal one.

“I was pleased to hear there has actually been a commitment made to it,” said Brown. “But even at a 1 percent per-year increase, there is still a ways to go but I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”

One initiative that could have an effect on the road to 55 percent is an exhaustive study of the essential programs and services model that was commissioned by the Legislature. Though the study’s intent is to help develop a way to more equitably distribute education funding to rich and poor communities, it may also impact what is included within EPS.

Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said she hopes the budget language ushers increased state spending on education for years to come. She said most Republicans agree with Democrats that education funding should be robust, though she said the money should be targeted through the EPS system, so the state knows it is paying for high-value education programming.

“This language puts us on a track to get to 55 percent,” she said. “There’s always been something delaying that. … That’s just the reality of life here in Augusta.”

Christopher Cousins is a reporter in the BDN’s State House bureau.

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